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Bait (2019)

2020 #9
Mark Jenkin | 89 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | UK / English | 15

Bait

The past and the present — the old ways and the new — clash head-on in Mark Jenkin’s Bait, both in its storyline and its production.

The former is the tale of a fisherman without a fishing boat: Martin (Edward Rowe) is a Cornishman through-and-through, a lover of his community and resistant to change; but his brother, Steve (Giles King) has turned their boat into a tourist vehicle, and they’ve had to sell their childhood home to well-to-do city-dwellers (played by Simon Shepherd and Mary Woodvine, as the very embodiment of upper-middle-class London-types with the money for a rural second home). As the summer season arrives, and upcountry tourists descend on the small town, flashing their cash, Martin struggles to get by; and the clash between two different worlds comes to a head.

As to the latter (the production method), Jenkin has steeped his film in both older filmmaking methods and the place it was made. It was shot on 16mm black-and-white stock with a wind-up camera, with all the sound post-synced because the camera was too noisy to record on set. All 130 rolls of film were hand-developed by Jenkin in his Cornish studio, with a deliberate degree of what some might call “carelessness” to add authenticity: scratches come from washing the film under a running tap; exposure varies because the film was wound manually, therefore at an inconsistent speed; a “strange sparkle” on one bit of film was caused by leaving the studio door open and pollen blowing onto the drying film (there’s more about tall that in an interview with Jenkin by British Cinematographer). It’s a defiantly hand-crafted and old-fashioned method for making a movie; a way that’s becoming ever rarer thanks to the appealing ease of digital, both to blockbuster and low-budget productions. It’s funny that the only people ‘allowed’ to use film are either your Christopher Nolans — big-name auteurs who make tonnes of money for the studios, so they can do what they want — or your Mark Jenkins — tiny independent artists producing films for a pittance, so they can do it how they want.

Beautiful black and white

Some might consider Jenkin’s method to be unnecessarily pretentious — self-consciously Arty — but it’s actually a wonderful marriage of form and content; the earthy, hand-hewn visuals reflect the film’s themes. It’s not just an exercise in style, either. This would be a worthwhile narrative if told in a more conventional manner, but it would feel less striking and authentic with a glossy digital sheen. Of course, all filmmaking is “technology”, but there’s something about using such old cameras and film stock, developing the footage by hand, post-dubbing the sound, that all feels like The Old Ways, like it’s traditional and handmade, in a way that matches up with Martin’s desires and goals.

Some reviews have compared the end result to silent film, which doesn’t wash for me. The damaged visual quality might initially call to mind a poorly-preserved and unrestored print, which, if one has encountered such a thing at all, is likely to be from a silent film. But the actual feel is more 1950s location-shot social realism, with the themes of everyday rural working life, naturalistic acting and lighting, and post-dubbed dialogue (there’s none of that on your average silent movie, is there?)

Lest you think Jenkin is a one-note polemical storyteller, different points of view are allowed to exist: the upcountry folk aren’t all ‘evil’ (Martin may feel they’re a thorn in his side, but sometimes they’re actually on his side), and not all the locals long for the past (some are happy, or at least resigned, to fitting in and making their way with how things are). These are issues Cornwall has been dealing with for decades — it’s one of the poorest regions of the UK, thanks in part to so much property being bought as holiday homes and only occupied for a few weeks a year. But now is the right time to tell a story like that, because those problems are coming to a head: Brexit is set to be a disaster for Cornwall, because they’re going to lose a lot of EU funding. Will the British government replace it? The Cornish people, who did vote for Brexit, presumably assume so. I think they’ll be lucky.

This is a local pub for local people

Not that Jenkin is directly engaging in the Brexit debate here. In one scene we can overhear it being discussed on the radio, leaving us in no doubt when we are, but this isn’t a commentary on political upheaval. This is a story of normal people and how their lives have been altered by changing times. It may be unquestionably set now, but, as the filmmaking style underlines, the story is fairly timeless; it’s grounded and everyday.

Well, until a shocking event near the end, anyhow. No spoilers, but I have mixed feelings about that plot development. In one sense, it takes away from the feeling that this is an everyday situation that plays out across modern Cornwall; but, in another way, it’s a realisation of all the tensions that have been brewing throughout the film, like it’s almost inevitable that some tragedy would occur. Fortunately, how the film then deals with the aftermath is typically coolheaded and understated. We don’t get to see the immediate fallout (there are some characters we don’t even see again), just what ultimately happens later. In some ways that’s almost too little (for example, we’re not shown how it affects the locals’ relationship with the upcountry folk), but it also lands its overall point.

Bait has mostly been a regional success; regional not just to the UK, but to specific parts of the UK: according to figures published in Sight & Sound (and repeated in the BFI’s booklet accompanying the film’s Blu-ray), a typical movie makes 4.9% of its UK box office in the southwest, but for Bait that’s up at 35%. Hopefully time will see it break out further, because it’s a compelling story, both timely and timeless, uniquely told.

5 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Bait is on Film4 tonight at 11:20pm.

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