Three years after Bait, Mark Jenkin returns with another fiercely, distinctly Cornish film – this one on an isolated island above an abandoned mine rather than a fishing village turned tourist town. Mary Woodvine played the matriarch of a post-London family in Bait, and now in Enys Men (in Cornish, Stone Island), she becomes the almost solitary Volunteer watching flowers grow on possibly contaminated soil. Figures from her past – and perhaps the island’s – invade her observations. Perhaps best known as Mary Harkinson on EastEnders and Jenkin’s partner in real life, Woodvine relishes the opportunity to sit front and centre.
“To be the lead feels like such a luxury,” she says. “Usually, you come in to do your work, and you know that your story has to fit around the larger story. But to be the story of the piece is a total gift. You can just relax into it.”
Enys Men was delayed for a year due to the pandemic, but its script – written before – remained the same. Strangely, its focus on isolated routine makes the film feel current, which Woodvine took into her process. “I think that was really helpful and useful because I love people, and I really need people,” Woodvine says, “but I’ve found myself seeking out more time on my own. I don’t know whether that was the pandemic. It definitely wasn’t to do with people. People were lovely. But I was finding a little bit more solace in being on my own or in my own space.” Woodvine doesn’t know how Enys Men would have landed were it not for the ubiquity of pandemic isolation – it’s a great unanswerable question for another time.
Jenkin did not record any sound on set, doing all audio and dialogue in a studio. It does not make a difference to performing on film, Woodvine says, but going back to record lines afterwards was tricky. “You can’t think “Oh, we’re not going to use this.” You just have to do it like you always would. The difficulty comes in the ADR afterwards when you’re trying to remember that.” She and Edward Rowe, who plays The Boatman, recorded their dialogue separately for shared scenes. When a scene partner isn’t there, it’s more of a challenge, but I would have heard his line for me to react to it. I wasn’t just speaking into the void.”
Thankfully, this challenge is not a constant throughout the film: the dialogue is extremely sparse in Enys Men. “It was great. I didn’t have many lines to learn,” Woodvine says with a laugh. “You can have your own internal dialogue.” She describes the script’s repetition as looking like poetry as it described The Volunteer’s ceaseless routine. “At no point did Mark tell me what I’m thinking or what my attitude is, but I might know she’s done [her routine] three times, and things are starting to get a bit weird,” she adds. “So when she’s dropping the stones, there’s a different energy. It starts to feel more loaded. It just gives you freedom as an actor to think and also not have to justify your thinking because nobody knows what you’re thinking about.”
Consequently, Enys Men has given rise to various audience theories about its characters and happenings, many of which are ones Woodvine did not imagine when playing the character. However, she welcomes these various implications and enjoys the idea that The Volunteer is becoming part of the landscape. “I love it when the boatman asks her if she likes it on her own, and she just says “I’m not on my own”, Woodvine says. It’s a plainly stated line. “It’s just a simple fact. She’s not on her own. She could be referring to nature, to all her flora and fauna around her. None of us are alone if we think of it like that and tune in to the natural world.”
Enys Men is a film viewers will take different things from in its formal rigour, story ambiguity, and possible crossover of timelines – both The Volunteer’s past and Cornish tradition and history in general. “I did a story in my head about what her history was and why she was there,” Woodvine says. “I think she had been on that island before.” Her other occasional scene partner is a young woman whose identity is not revealed until late in the film; Woodvine enjoys the implications of the simple warning – avoid the roof – The Volunteer keeps passing to the girl. “I think it’s quite strange, whether she’s in her imagination or really there,” Woodvine says, noting that she finds these relationships very complicated despite the extreme simplicity of The Volunteer’s words.
This backstory added depth to Woodvine’s work, but her aim was verisimilitude. “When we were filming, I didn’t bring all the history with me,’ she says. “I wanted to be present. She might be thinking about the flowers when she’s taking the temperature of the ground, but I genuinely think she’s present. She’s looking at what’s around her and being aware because you have to watch your feet on rough terrain. So there’s that sense of needing to be present in order to keep safe.”
On her daily circuit, The Volunteer wears the same practical outfit: boots, jeans, and a bright red jacket. “It was brilliant,” Woodvine says. “It was really comfortable and warm. We were filming in March, and I was always warm and windproof. The walking shoes were comfortable from the day I put them on. I didn’t have cold feet once.” Only one regret clouds her effusiveness. “The only thing I felt sad about is because it was 1973, those trousers have a great big flare. You don’t see the flare because they’re folded up in her socks, which is a real shame.” A friend of hers – a makeup artist who worked on the Harry Potter films – taught her how to do her very minimal makeup to look barefaced on screen. “Every morning, I would sit at home with the mirror in the window and do my makeup before I went on set. That was quite calming.”
Woodvine has great respect for her partner’s analog working style and sees why it continues to be a talking point around his new releases. “He hasn’t at any point taken the easy route. I think that interests people. You see the commitment, and it takes a hell of a lot more time.”
Enys Men is in UK cinemas from 13 January 2023 with a preview/Q&A tour from 2 January.
by Carmen Paddock
Carmen is a Pennsylvanian transplant to Glasgow who writes about film, television, and opera. A lover of maximalism and musicals, much of her writing focuses on cross-media adaptation. Favourite films include West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You, Ludwig, Cabaret, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and Moulin Rouge!. She holds a Masters in International Film Business from the University of Exeter / London Film School. Follow her on Twitter @CarmenChloie