Tackling the decimation of traditional Cornish towns and industry at the hands of posh London-type tourists who swan in for a few weeks a year before leaving empty, unaffordable homes behind them, Bait could have easily been another gritty kitchen sink study of a Britain in decline. Yet, though Mark Jenkin’s strange, alluring debut certainly tackles its issues seriously, it utterly rejects the unfurnished, ‘realistic’ style that so often defines films like this. Jenkin pits the familiar against the weird, crafting one of the most unique and memorable British debuts in quite some time.
The heart of the class conflict in Bait is the antagonistic relationship between fisherman Martin Ward (Edward Rowe) and wealthy couple Sandra and Tim (Mary Woodvine and Simon Shepherd), who bought Martin’s childhood house as their holiday home. They clamp Martin’s truck and Tim, in particular, demands an insulting level of deference, whilst their snotty son steals Martin’s fishing equipment in an attempt to prove himself manly in front of the other holidaying teens. Martin is hardly blameless, stubbornly refusing to join in on his brother’s boat tours venture, but his anger is more than justified, and is kept at an ominously steady simmer throughout.
This tension is maintained mostly by Jenkin’s fascinating soundscape and scratchy black and white visuals. Stomping boots echo through the town whilst Martin’s rage sometimes seem to sap the noise from the rooms he enters, leaving nothing but the sound of fuming anger. Bait bobs about in time, flashing backwards and forwards with little warning. It creates a feeling of sealed fates and inevitable tragedy, as well as the grinding repetition of being poor in a part of the country that offers no way out. Life at the declining harbour is dull, harsh, and mostly spent hungover, and the inconsiderate tourists don’t help matters.
There are some archly funny moments, as well as some spectacular insults hurled by Martin and fiery barmaid Wenna (Chloe Endean), but the general atmosphere of Bait is heavy. Not many films could wring nail-biting tension out of a dispute over lobster ownership and though the affected style and heightened performances do sometimes keep you at an emotional remove, Bait still manages to hit hard in its finale. It’s a wonderfully idiosyncratic movie that reminds you that not every British debut film needs fly-on-the-wall drabness to get made, and hopefully the start to a very exciting career for Jenkin.