While most films in modern times adhere to a linear structure and follow the conventional rules of storytelling, there are still some exceptional works that fly under the radar. Cornish director Mark Jenkins’ latest folk horror film Enys Men is definitely one such work, which completely disregards commonly accepted norms about narrative cinema. The film is centered around an unnamed woman in 1973 who has embraced the responsibility of observing a rare flower’s growth on an uninhabited island. But this summary is perhaps the only structure in the film that resembles what we conventionally consider the plot, for it genuinely dives deep into the abstract from there on. It is, therefore, almost a worthless exercise to try and understand a film that is not meant to be understood, but still, here are a few thoughts.
What Is The Film About?
Let’s get all the things that are clearly stated and understandable out of the way first. Enys Men is set entirely on an island in the Cornwall region of England, and the words “enys men” actually mean “stone island” in Cornish. At the center of this setting and living on this small, uninhabited island is a middle-aged woman whose name or identity is never revealed. But the woman is not here without any purpose, for she has been bestowed the responsibility of observing the growth of a particular rare flower plant that has been growing at one particular spot on the island.
Therefore, the protagonist’s life has a very set routine—after waking up in the morning and tending to her personal needs, she walks out of her house and visits the flower plant. Here she minutely observes the flowers and also takes the temperature of the soil before going over to a well, into which she drops a rock. This is in order to understand, and possibly record, the water level on the particular day, which she understands from how long the rock takes to splash into the water. After this, the woman returns to the house and carefully writes down the observations about the flower plant, with three neat columns of date, the temperature of the soil, and personal observations. This entire matter, which hardly takes maybe half an hour, is all the work that the protagonist has to do each day, following which the rest of the day is solely hers.
There is enough supply at the house to last the woman for ten to fourteen days, with a boat that comes over to the island with more supplies after that interval of time. There is also a radio to talk with people on the mainland, but the woman is not much of a talker at all, and we hardly see her communicating over the radio. A small generator is used to run all the electricity in the house, and once she is done with chores and preparing food, she turns off the generator at night and goes off to sleep.
Although there is no clear mention of how long this routine has been going on, the first few minutes of the film clearly establish the sense of drudgery that is experienced in this schedule. Each day the woman observes the wildflowers and then notes in her record that there has been “no change.” But this situation changes, along with a string of other strange occurrences. Around the same time that the woman seems to run out of food supplies and petrol to run the generator, she notices lichen growing on the flowers. Very strangely, lichen also starts to grow on her own body, and she also starts to see people and things that are actually not there.
Who are the various people that the protagonist starts to see?
Around twenty minutes into Enys Men, our protagonist starts to see a young woman on the island, even though she is literally the only person living at the place, which is miles away from the nearest civilization. There can be no doubt that this younger woman, who keeps appearing from then on, is an apparition or a figment of the protagonist’s imagination, as there is no possibility of her being a living human. While that is easy to fathom in a horror film, Enys Men does not provide any further details about who she is or why our protagonist is seeing her all of a sudden. As the film progresses, she also starts to see multiple other figures—a boatman, a priest performing baptism (or some other religious act) on a baby, a group of miners, a group of women dressed as nuns, and then a group of children singing.
It is perhaps anybody’s guess as to what exactly any of these appearances mean, as none of them is delved into with any rational or linear logic by the film itself. Therefore, it is to be noted that everything that follows is only my personal interpretation or an attempt at it. The younger woman seems to be the younger self of the protagonist herself, for she seems to know her very well. However, the protagonist is not surprised or bewildered to see her own younger self roaming around in front of her. Instead, there is a sort of accepting manner in which the woman perceives this younger self, as she checks on her sleeping and then looks on as she climbs up onto the roof of the house. The two women also seemingly share the same scar on their bellies, which makes it all the more possible that they are the same women, just from different timelines. However, what this appearance of the younger woman means or signifies still remains a mystery. It could be that at this younger age, the protagonist had more possibilities and chances in life when she chose life to be a certain way, which led to her staying by herself on the uninhabited island. Therefore now, amidst her boredom and loneliness, she starts to think of her younger days and this takes a very physical form in front of her.
The boatman initially seems to be the real boatman who comes to the island with new supplies every two weeks, but then this is also undone by the film. There is mention of a stone memorial on the island that was made to honor all the men and women lost at sea, and especially a specific boatman who had lost his life on the island. Towards the end of the film, we see that this dead boatman was indeed the same boatman earlier seen talking with the protagonist, making it clear (probably, since nothing in this film is clear) that he, too, was an apparition. There is also a scene of lovemaking between the man and the protagonist, suggesting that the two might have been lovers earlier in life. It could be that the protagonist was in a romantic relationship with the man until his death at sea, following which she intentionally agreed to stay on the island where a memorial for him had been built. Enys Men does not clearly adhere to the logic of time at all, as the radio announcement towards the beginning of the film mentions the death of the boatman to be on the 1st of May 1973, which is technically in the future at this time, for the protagonist mentions the current date in her record to be April of 1973.
If we consider the boatman to be the protagonist’s lover, then the younger woman can also be seen as her daughter, perhaps. This could also answer the question of why the woman is so unbothered by her presence and almost has a caring (although slightly harsh) attitude toward her. Then again, the scene with the priest holding the baby also makes things unclear, and it probably suggests that the baby is the same baby that the woman had given birth to. It could be that the woman had been pregnant with the boatman’s child, given birth to a daughter, but lost the child. Therefore, the younger woman is perhaps the protagonist’s imagination of how her daughter would have been at this time had she been alive.
As far as the miners are concerned, they also behave and go about as if they are actually living, with one even using the woman’s toilet, whereas they do not exist in reality. There had been a mine on the island, as suggested by the fact that there is a spot called the old miners’ quay, and it could be that the miners had died at the place in some old accident. There is also a different memorial built on the island in honor of a group of men aboard a lifeboat that had been sent out to sea in order to help a different supply boat, and the protagonist also seems to see the ghost of these men at one point in the film. The women dressed as nuns are exactly seven in number, and their appearances look extremely similar to the picture on a tin of milk that the protagonist uses in her kitchen in the house. This could be a clue that the protagonist was actually hallucinating the women, and her mind was creating these imaginary figures based on information she already knew, such as the image on the milk tin.
‘Enys Men’ Ending Explained: What does the film possibly mean?
If we are to think of the most logical interpretation, then it is possible that the protagonist had been hallucinating all the strange events and appearances out of extreme boredom that pushed her towards the limit of real and imaginary. The boatman was perhaps indeed her lover, but his appearance on the island, along with that of her younger self, was all part of her heated imagination. When the lichen starts to appear on the flowers, and then the flowers ultimately disappear altogether, it perhaps marks the highest point of her mental crisis, and the lichen is also part of her imagination. The organism that starts to grow on the flowers and also on her own body perhaps signifies the slow but sure decay that originated from the boredom on the island. The growth of the lichen on the flowers is a much-awaited change in the life of the protagonist, and when it occurs, her own life changes, too, quite literally, as the organism starts growing across her belly. At the end of the film, though, the protagonist is seen walking the terrain on the island very normally and casually, perhaps towards the flower plant, as everything in between had been part of her bored imagination.
But Enys Men also very evidently seems to be a film that does not intend to adhere to any logical interpretation. It is, in fact, a film not even to be understood but to be simply enjoyed on the basis of its incredibly powerful visual and aural style. The monolithic rock that attracts special attention throughout the film is quite interesting, as there seems to be a semblance between it and the protagonist woman. Just like the moss and lichen all over the rock, there is a growth of organisms on the woman’s body as well. There is even a moment in the film when it seems like the monolithic rock and the woman interchange places, creating a sort of absurd relationship between the two. However, what this relationship is and what it might signify are simply open to debate. It is also to be remembered that Enys Men probably has innumerable local folk and cultural references, which would go amiss for us unaware of said culture.
Lastly, if we are to consider the film’s title, which is Cornish for Stone Island, then perhaps the film could also be interpreted as the story of the island itself. Instead of the woman researcher character, perhaps it is the island itself around which the whole plot of the film is built. Existing for centuries, the island has probably been witness to the mining accident that killed the miners and the boating accident that killed all the men. It existed before the monolithic rock and also now, when the rock is a significant characteristic of the island. Therefore, the researcher woman and the strange flower plant that she keeps observing are also part of what the island has witnessed over time. A short scene in which the house where the researcher stays is seen as an old, abandoned building with moss and other plants growing all over it is perhaps a brief glimpse into the future, where the stony island also bears witness to a time when the woman has left, and the place is truly uninhabited. Another scene, in which the protagonist woman is seen on the boat of rescuers bringing up the dead boatman’s body, also signifies that the narrative actually covers multiple timelines at the same time, as the woman had possibly become part of a rescue team after leaving her job on the island as a plant researcher.