UK (2019) Dir. Mark Jenkin
New versus old, progress versus tradition – a battle for the ages that will rage on as we continue to evolve as people and a society. The big difference here however is that quite often there is no real right or wrong as both have their merits; it’s finding the balance and happy medium between the two that creates the conflict.
In a small Cornish fishing village, Martin Ward (Edward Rowe) is struggling to make ends meet since tourism has overtaken fishing as the main source of income for many in the community. Martin has no boat as his brother Steven (Giles King) is using their father’s boat for providing tours for visitors, leaving him with just a net and a lobster pot to catch his fish, which makes saving for his own boat very slow.
The Ward brothers have also sold their old family home Skipper’s Cottage to Londoner Tim Leigh (Simon Shepherd) who uses it as a holiday home, and neighbouring houses which he rents out to other tourists. Martin is deeply resentful of this but nobody else seems to share his anger. Meanwhile, tensions are stirred when Steven’s son Neil (Isaac Woodvine) would rather fish with Martin than work with his father.
Bait is an unusual film although 80 or 90 years ago it wouldn’t have stood out from any others screening at the time. Despite the modern day setting, Bait looks like it was made in 1932, right down to the 4:3 picture ratio, dulled monotone colour palette, scratches on the film, and the use of intense close-up shots and abundance of cutaways. Think silent era Dreyer and Eisenstein and you’re halfway there, the rest has a British Pathé news newsreel feel to it
Director Mark Jenkin shot Bait on an old Bolex cine-camera on 130 rolls of 16mm film he processed himself to create the visual marks and the authentic old time feel to it and it makes for a remarkable viewing experience. The dedication to recreating this bygone aesthetic pays off for Jenkin as it will assuredly excite and impress anyone with a deep love for cinema, but is it just a gimmick or can the film survive on its own merits?
Admittedly, a consensus on this is unlikely, as Jenkin has not only mastered the look and style of early European masters but also their obtuse reliance on obtuse and esoteric symbolism and visual storytelling that often confuses. Depending on how you feel about what is essentially a rudimentary take on “arthouse” cinema, this may come across as style over substance as he story does take a while to reveal itself.
Visually, the stark, haunting quality of the aesthetic that hits us from the opening shot is gravid enough to pique interest, through the lack of modernity to be found until a few minutes in when the Leigh family arrive. Martin is dressed in traditional fisherman’s gear that remains timeless, his battered and worn equipment having seen better days too. It is only the modern expensive car pulling up that shatters any illusion of the setting being in days past.
Straight away there is an uneasy air between Martin and the Leighs, alluded to a history between them that is never expanded upon, but Martin feels aggrieved about having to sell them his family house, and less impressed by their “modernising” of it. This at least makes it clear we have a hidebound bumpkin vs. urban sophisticate feud ahead of us, which evolves into an ugly clash of wills.
Meanwhile, this spills over to the youngsters of the tale, with Neil taking a shine to Katie Leigh (Georgia Ellery) which is reciprocated, much to the annoyance of her feckless older brother Hugo (Jowan Jacobs). This incurs the jealousy of teen barmaid Wenna Kowalski (Chloe Endean), a hot head and empath to Martin’s issues, feeling pushed out by the posh tourists in her own town.
Neil and Wenna aside, Martin seems to be making enemies of everyone since the Leighs arrived, even his fellow townsfolk whom he deems sell outs for betraying the local ways to suit the visitors. However, it hard to read whether he is stuck in the past or merely bitter at losing his main source of income to “London money” and his dignity with it, but somewhere beneath his gruff, uncompromising façade is a sympathetic character.
Yet Jenkin spends a lot of time lighting the fuse of this incendiary situation but just as the wick is about the expire, he infuriatingly snuffs it out and ends the film on not that is not even ambiguous or enigmatic, just abrupt and open with little answered. A lot occurs leading up to this that demands explanation; Jenkin doesn’t have to spoon feed us (in fact he doesn’t) but this is the equivalent of the last page being torn from a novel.
This is a shame as once we got into the groove of the quirky presentation – complete with a flurry of manic quick cuts which sometimes relates to a concurrent occurrence, though not always for creating tension, more often to symbolise the clashing of worlds which might be a masterclass in frantic editing but doesn’t always make sense – it is hard to not to take this ending as a bit of a pretentious cheat.
Most of the cast are first timers, which unfortunately shows in a lot of cases – Edward Rowe as Martin is a stand out as the focal point of the film, even out acting experienced actors Simon Shepherd and Mary Woodvine, whilst on the other end of the spectrum, Jowan Jacobs as Hugo is inexperienced student film actor level awkward with his facial expressions.
Bait is a film to be appreciated immensely at how Jenkin has told a modern story but presented it in an archaic style, which actually wouldn’t work were it made via current production methods. But is it genius or pompous frippery? I really can’t decide.