Bait review – one of the defining British films of the decade

It’s war between the locals and tourists in a once-thriving Cornish fishing village in Mark Jenkin’s dreamlike masterpiece

Cornish film-maker Mark Jenkin’s breakthrough feature is a thrillingly adventurous labour of love – a richly textured, rough-hewn gem in which form and content are perfectly combined. A refreshingly authentic tale of tensions between locals and tourists in a once-thriving fishing village, it’s an evocative portrait of familiar culture clashes in an area where traditional trades and lifestyles are under threat. Shot with clockwork cameras on grainy 16mm stock, which Jenkin hand-processed in his studio in Newlyn, Bait is both an impassioned paean to Cornwall’s proud past, and a bracingly tragicomic portrait of its troubled present and possible future. It’s a genuine modern masterpiece, which establishes Jenkin as one of the most arresting and intriguing British film-makers of his generation.

Fishing-stock siblings Martin and Steven Ward (“Kernow King” Edward Rowe and Giles King respectively) are at odds. While the former still scrapes a living selling his catch of fish and lobster door-to-door, his brother has succumbed to the tourist trade, using their late father’s boat to take rowdy, moneyed tourists on sightseeing trips. “He’d be spinning in his grave,” growls Martin, whose sense of betrayal has been worsened by the sale of the family home to incomers Tim and Sandra Leigh (Simon Shepherd and Mary Woodvine). Now fishing nets have become chintzy decorations, the perfect accompaniment to a fridge stacked with prosecco.

Arguments about quayside parking and the noise of early morning sailings (“I’m pretty sure it’s against the law!”) threaten to boil over into physical violence, but that doesn’t stop the Leighs’ daughter Katie (Georgia Ellery) from taking up with Steven’s ruggedly handsome son Neil (Isaac Woodvine), to the horror of her brother Hugo (Jowan Jacobs). “You didn’t have to sell us this house,” insists Sandra during a confrontation with Martin, whose curt response speaks volumes: “Didn’t we?”

Building on the promise of the powerful 2015 short Bronco’s House, which tackled Cornwall’s housing crisis, Bait finds the film-maker once again addressing pressing social issues with a profoundly poetic sensibility. As before, Jenkin shot Bait without sound, effectively creating a silent movie to which dialogue, music and sound effects were added later, splendidly concertinaing a century of cinema history. The effect is bizarrely brilliant, lending a dreamlike quality to the dialogue, which transforms the spoken English into something weirdly reminiscent of a dubbed foreign-language film. It’s a disorienting effect that highlights a central theme of Bait: people speaking in the same tongue yet failing to understand one another. Crucially, Jenkin doesn’t caricature the incomers, suggesting that they too have been sold a lie – a picture-postcard image of Cornwall as removed from reality as the enchanted highlands of Brigadoon.

While the post-synched speech has an alienating, Pinteresque theatricality, the rest of the soundtrack rises and falls like the tide, with Jenkin’s own synth drones weaving in and out of Daniel Thompson’s layered sound designs. At times I was reminded of beatboxer Jason Singh’s mesmerising live vocal accompaniment, which I saw in 2016, to John Grierson’s 1929 fishing documentary Drifters, an overwhelming experience that similarly bridged the gap between old silent film and modern immersive sound.

It’s the visuals, however, that lift Bait into the realms of timelessness and transcendence. Despite early success on video (his 2002 oddity Golden Burn won a first time director’s prize at the Celtic film and TV festival), the former promo-producer found himself artistically becalmed and turned to celluloid to reinvigorate his passion for cinema.

As his obsession with physical film stock flourished, so Jenkin’s vision became more focused, producing award-wining shorts like The Essential Cornishman and The Road to Zennor, which laid the experimental groundwork for Bait. Relishing the strange alchemical accidents and human thumbprints of home-developed celluloid, Jenkin has crafted a 21st-century feature that carries within its DNA the evolution of the moving image, from Méliès to Andrew Kötting via Robert Bresson, Lynne Ramsay and (in a roundabout way) the magical visions of Powell and Pressburger.

Having premiered to rapturous applause at the Berlinale in February, Bait looks set to become one of the defining British films of the year, perhaps the decade. Some have chosen to read it as a timely Brexit parable, although its roots and production predate the current crisis; clearly the fissures of the present run deep into the past. Personally, I think its appeal is more universal, although (as always) it’s by focusing on the specifics – the knots of a lobster pot, the ripped entanglements of a fishing haul – that Jenkin manages to throw his net so far. I hope he catches the widest possible audience.

Watch a trailer for Bait.

Contributor

Mark Kermode

The GuardianTramp

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