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Bait: Noir fishing melodrama exposes the widening cracks in British society
June 29, 2019
Bait’s hero is a cove fisherman called Martin (Edward Rowe), but everyone from the town calls him Mar – an abbreviation which is unassumingly intimate, like his workaday relationship to the sea. It’s been a given since birth and contained within the name itself (its suggestion of the marine with its Latin root, mare), but it’s a connection which, we feel, is becoming less and less sure. Mark Jenkin’s first feature, told with angry wit and precise sensitivity on location in Cornwall, explores what happens when the historical connection between a fishing village and its industry is almost wholly replaced by a newer one, tourism, and its effects on the whole town.
Martin is kind, steely and perennially anxious, with a touch of Western swagger, enduring with dignity the humiliation of trawling the cove by hand since the loss of his boat; his brother Steven must now use it as a tourist ferry. Martin catches, sells and delivers a tiny catch alone, save for some dilatory assistance from Neil, his nephew. Jenkin’s narrative is based around Martin’s attempt to re-acquire a boat, which means re-acquiring something of a living and a life.
The necessary sale of his house, conveniently right by the cove, has also displaced him from a livelihood. Its buyers are the upper-middle class Leighs, who spend two months a year by the coast and rent out the property next door to holidaymakers who remain for an even shorter time.
Neither the words conflict nor community truthfully describe the horribly embroiled relationship Jenkin evokes between the Cornish residents and the Leighs. The narrative runs on frequent moments of collision and a claustrophobic setting which sees radically different people living within the same tight space of land. The Leighs’ renters eat Martin’s meagre catch at the pub; their daughter starts sleeping with Neil; in the same waters in which Martin works, the son wades into the shallows in full scuba garb to harpoon lobsters for fun; and Martin’s quest for a boat is resolved via means which aren’t exactly local.
Such relentlessly-paced scenarios make for a cringingly funny but ultimately disastrous relationship between the two families. The Leighs are husband, wife, daughter and son, their obvious nuclearity a cloying counterpoint to Martin’s gappier clan – one brother, one nephew, no wife, no parents, and, by the end of the film, will count another absence, while the Leighs have a disquietingly straightforward lineage, suggesting who, and what kind of people, might inherit house, sea, town and prosperity.
All the characters are stereotypes, their identities clearly constructed by material circumstance, but it’s a precise evocation of what these stereotypes are made up of which makes them so palpable. Jenkin creates a brilliantly odd stylised form in which gestures and interactions seem both stripped back and stagy: the actors give predictable lines in stilted ways, as if they’re reciting something dictated to them, perhaps by social position and status in the town.
This gives characters, especially the Leighs, who so clearly don’t belong in their chosen holiday destination, great vulnerability. Tim Shepherd and Mary Woodvine excel at a mode of delivery which exposes the dangerously frivolous structure of their world. Jenkin’s close-ups and sharply-defined use of black and white film ensure that we see every wrinkle and pore as they try to be polite to Martin without revealing their fear, and it’s uncomfortable to watch their middle class life get blown up into ostentatiousness as they boil penne, listen to Radio 4, wear linen.
Just as the symbols of their comfortable class are exposed, so is their own treatment of the signifiers of nautical life: their holiday home, once Martin’s actual house, features décor made from netting, a porthole in the kitchen wall, and a little anchor shape for a doorknocker, all emphasised by often frenetic cuts between close-ups of objects which are returned to with relish.
Martin’s laconism, satisfyingly performed by Rowe as sometimes good-humoured, other times simmering, is manifest in Jenkin’s shooting style and form. In Bait, he favours shooting in black and white on 16mm film – hand-processed – which often breaks up the picture with cracks and fissures.
As Jenkin has said, such qualities enhance the ‘rough edges, warts and all, wild, tangible’ nature of the world he represents, displaying a desire to get to the truth of the present moment – though perhaps such a hauntological aesthetic of the cracked and spectral grey also conveys how close this reality is to becoming the past, suggesting the imminent loss of a life which hangs on into the present, as if it’s already coming back to haunt the village.
Do the Leighs, both hapless and dangerous, take the bait, a beautiful Cornish town waiting to be prettified, and end up creating catastrophe for themselves and Martin’s family? Or are they dangling a tantalising prospect in front of the town’s residents? More tourists, more cash, more industry, more community, so the buzzwords go. Jenkin de-jargons these phrases, conveying the stark complexity of the removal of a way of life from its seemingly inextricable setting.
Bait will be opening in cinemas UK-wide from 30 August 2019.
Words by Charlotte Palmer.
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