Film critic Calum Cooper reviews Mark Jenkin’s Bait, a visually stunning and compellingly layered film that he brands one of the year’s best.
Bait – ★★★★★
Mark Jenkin’s Bait is the most strikingly original British film in years. Visually breath-taking, and brimming with thematic subtext, the film is woven as articulately as a fisherman’s net. Like the tide at night, it creeps up on you and carries you away with its stunning craftsmanship and timely themes. I was so impressed with it that I booked a second screening right after the first finished. And I liked it even more the second time!
Set in a Cornish fishing village, the film’s location is the centrepiece of conflict. Brothers Martin and Steven Ward (Edward Rowe and Giles King respectively) are on opposing ends of one predominant conflict – localisation and tourism. Steven has sold the family home to an upper class family – the Leighs – who have turned their home, and by extension, the town into a touristic site. He now drives his father’s boat – which was once used for fishing – around the coast as part of the Leighs’ touristic plans, taking visitors on a tour of the Cornish sites.
Meanwhile, Martin is staunchly opposed to this change, as he believes in the fishing community being precisely that – a fishing community. It’s a sentiment seemingly shared by many of the townsfolk, including Steven’s son. But only Martin, who continues to sell fish door to door and is saving money for a new boat, as well as the teenage Wenna (brilliantly played by Chloe Endean in one of the more understated highlights of the film), seem to act on this. The rest simply go along with it. But when tensions run this high, explosive behaviour on both sides is bound to happen.
What truly separates Bait from every other film I’ve seen this year, and possibly this decade, is how rooted it is in the foundations of film itself. Jenkin has a prevalent love for film, both in its creation and in its evolution. He shot Bait in 16mm on a clockwork camera, and then hand-processed the reels himself. He also shot the film silently, and the actors later dubbed the inserted dialogue. This creates a monochrome film with notable grain and strange lighting in instances, a side effect of hand-processing, with the dialogue noticeably a little off. And yet it maintains a 21st century British setting despite, visually and technically, having more in common with early 1900s foreign cinema, like A Man with a Movie Camera.
“It’s an authentically informed study on the tensions of family and society, but it’s so much more as well. With phenomenal acting, intricate drama, a haunting soundtrack, and spellbinding visual filmmaking that borrows from virtually all realms of cinema, the film is simply extraordinary.”
However, this choice works remarkably in the film’s favour. Not only does it stylistically make the film unique among 2010s cinema, but it meshes perfectly with the themes and concepts Jenkin is exploring. Time is a predominant component within this film’s structure, with many of the film’s primary conflicts concerning a romanticised past, a troubling present, and an unknown future. Martin is a believer in the fishing community, specifically what the town once was. He can be seen as a relic of the past. Thus the choice to shoot the film in such an old-fashioned way runs parallel to Martin’s character, who is endlessly fascinating and complex despite being a seemingly simple and disgruntled man.
Its setting goes a long way with this too. Bait is so proud of its Cornish heritage and identity that its appeal becomes universal. Much of that is down to the subdued, restrained writing that Jenkin utilises superbly. This community feels real to me. I feel like I could walk to the pub that the characters frequent and interact with many of them directly. You feel like a fly on the wall to the lives of these people, and yet even the most seemingly mundane of conversations holds so much weight. The dialogue may have been dubbed, but this also works to the film’s advantage, as it gives the film a dreamlike quality that adds to the story’s themes. Time is running and the setting is clear, but this could be happening anywhere.
Its characters can also be seen as extensions of this, each of whom feel genuine in their realisation. Martin is played by fantastically by Edward Rowe, who marvellously captures the disdain Martin has for the town’s and his brother’s enabling attitudes, as well as a subtle, but deep insecurity to live up to his father. The chemistry Rowe has with the rest of the cast is terrific, the best, and often funniest, scenes being whenever he and Chloe Endean as Wenna are interacting with one another. I cannot wait to see what’s next for either of them.
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But these characters, with their layers and identifiable traits, all wonderfully add to the film’s themes, on top of being such engaging people in their own right. Perhaps this is me reading too deeply into the film, but I would argue that Bait is the ideal anti-Brexit movie. I mention it as there seems to be a nod to the referendum in a small but integral scene, while the rest of the film plays, at least to me, like a middle finger to the very foundations Brexit is based on. The Leighs represent the Tory administration(s) – a collection of wealthy consumerist sycophants who hijack the lifestyles and livings of ordinary people, in this case a Cornish fishing community, in order to further their own wealth and egos, under the guise of giving back to the community. The film’s greatest scene is in the pub, which features a direct conflict between Martin, the pub owner, and the head of the Leigh household, Tim, as they exchange brutal but beautifully written words.
Furthering reinforcing this is the fact that the film brilliantly has its opening and closing be almost identical, something I didn’t notice until my second viewing. The film often cuts to events yet to happen in the middle of scenes, as if in trepidation of the outcome. But this parallel in the opening and closing offers hope amongst the melancholy and tension woven into the film’s fabric. Without going too heavily into spoilers, both feature Martin, a forgotten participant of the past, Wenna, an ignored member of the future, and Steven, a victim of an the aimless present, all coming together for a similar cause, whether that be the future of the community, or as simple as a fishing trip. The film uses these characters in the opening to show what has been lost, and in the closing to show what can still be reclaimed, for, in the end, these characters are all just bait in the sea of conflict.
Add it all up and we have a film that is rich with subtext, predominantly on the multiple conflicts that are ongoing, whether obvious or not. Tourism vs localism. Past vs present. Working vs upper class. Tradition vs change. Young vs old. Brother vs brother. The list goes on. It’s an authentically informed study on the tensions of family and society, but it’s so much more as well. With phenomenal acting, intricate drama, a haunting soundtrack, and spellbinding visual filmmaking that borrows from virtually all realms of cinema, the film is simply extraordinary.
Bait completely swept me away. And, if my second viewing is anything to go by, I feel that it’s only going to get better with time. Mark Jenkin and his team should be thoroughly proud of themselves. Their film is so eloquently made, and so effortlessly clever, that I honestly don’t think I’m qualified enough to talk about a film on a level of this magnitude. It really is something special! So much so, that I predict it will one day be seen as a fundamental film for British cinema, alongside Kes or Local Hero. For Bait is not only one of 2019’s greatest films. It is, frankly, cinema in its purest form.