Image Credit: British Film Institute (BFI)
Director: Mark Jenkin
Starring: Edward Rowe, Mary Woodvine, Simon Shepard
Running time: 1hr 29mins
Mark Jenkin’s Bait is a wonderful film. It is so because it is a masterful piece of cinema, crafted with the astute skill and rhythm of an intuitive filmmaker, and because it captures the feeling of our times like no other recent British film I have seen. Set in Cornwall, we witness a tale of struggle and loss between two forces that are seemingly at odds with each other: the growing tourism industry, inviting swathes of metropolitan folk and their “yah” teenage children to muddle around in pubs and smoke on stony beaches, and the increasingly diminished local fishing industry.
The key character in Bait is Martin, a through-and-through, Cornish fisherman who disagrees with his brother, Steven, over the use of their once fishing boat now turned 30-minute tour vessel. It seems that’s where the money is. Martin is staunchly opposed to this; in his view this is an act of betrayal. He is left to throw nets on the beach, hoping to catch fish when the tide comes in and plant lobster pots with the help of his nephew Neil who also appears to disagree with his father’s use of the boat. He uses the money he gets from selling his catch to the local pub, eaten by the tourists, to save up for a boat of his own. Martin is also battling a family who bought his former family home and are subletting rooms for tourists. When walking into his old home he sees the changes they have made, a gentrified culturally clinical take on a “cosy” fishing cottage – unsurprisingly, Martin’s disaffection is clear. Martin is a force of resistance; a not-so-young ‘angry-young-man’ who is determined to support himself through the means he thinks right and proper; fishing. Bait is fundamentally a story of incrementally increasing alienation in a Cornish community, a confrontation with change, and a particular emotional reaction in coming to terms with it.
Shot using a 16mm Bolex camera, in 4:3 aspect ratio, and all sound and dialogue recorded in post, for about 10 minutes it is quite disorientating. One could imagine it was made with equipment found in a car-boot sale and the film developed with almost deliberate imprecision –following later reading I found out the latter to be quite true, at one point the film has been marked by pollen as the door to the developing studio had been left open. Despite the ostensible technical handicaps, the film is beautiful, a scarred monochrome dream of someone looking back at the unfolding of time; a fuzzy memory that fades and distorts.
It does not feel gimmicky either which was a worry of mine before watching. Much of what we see and hear is what Martin feels, who is recollecting, remembering, pining after something that is being lost. The film is a replaying of his memory, with all its fuzz, stretch, and distortion left in the physical film itself. A parallel can be drawn between Martin and Mark Jenkin, the writer-director, who presumably is a film purist, pining for the physicality, a lust for the mud, of celluloid. Much of Bait is shot in close-ups, so everything feels constrained. There is also a significant amount of subliminal editing, weaving of events and time, building to the penultimate moment of tension or realisation; think the opening scene of Roeg’s, Don’t Look Now. The influence of Robert Bresson is also clear to see.
The sound design of this film is similarly rudimentary, but nonetheless impressive - as if it had been recorded by a kettle. The soundscape primarily exists of sounds of the everyday; footsteps, engines, cutting, swallowing, boiling, and the effect of this is great. There is a rhythm to sounds of the everyday that is almost hypnotic, almost primal; it is always leading towards dream-logic and tension. What is emphasised in both the images and sound in Bait is what is important, not what is said. Everything feels, every image is loaded and necessary in conjunction with the image coming before and after. Same with sound, and, of course, the silences.
Bait is a great film because it has captured the feeling of our times in Britain like no other film. In this sense it is a political film. It can be read in several different ways; class, neoliberalism, culture – what we have lost or feel we are losing. The murmuring of Brexit-babble can be heard on the radio in one scene. But that’s all it is, a murmuring, happening elsewhere. It is not engaged in a Loachian exercise of presenting you with clear-skied political polemic. In many ways it is a populist film in terms of its plot, one man versus unsurmountable fate, the battle of agency vs structure. I imagine Bait could be interpreted as an argument against tourism, and market-logic, though I don’t believe this is necessarily the case or where its impact lies.
Bait captures the unconscious feelings of anger, grief, and loss. It has hit a nerve because is portrays the feeling of a vague sense of inevitability, helplessness, through the lens of the human process of remembering. There is a clear division on the surface of the film, the events which we see, but underneath, the emotions, is where the great expression lies. It is a film that is unique in that it is primarily concerned with the effects of outside structure on the emotions whilst managing to avoid didacticism. It is a universal and personal story, about Cornwall; but it is also political because politics is personal. Politics is what we feel.
Editor's note: This film was screened at City Screen York.