‘Bait’ Immerses you in the Tension Between Tradition and Modernisation in a Cornish Fishing Village

The first striking thing about Bait, is its look. The film is shot entirely on monochrome 16mm Bolex film stock, which writer and director, Mark Jenkin, developed himself using coffee grounds and vitamin powder, giving the final product a scratched and blotchy texture over its beautiful visuals. The next aspect that hits you is its dialogue. Since you can’t attach a sound input to a 16mm Bolex camera, all of the film’s noise had to be added in post-production, giving the dialogue a disjointed quality which feels like a dubbed version of a foreign language film.

Both of these choices, while uncommon, perfectly complement the films central tension, between locals and tourists in a small fishing village in Cornwall. Due to austerity and the industrialisation of fishing, the once- proud community now relies on seasonal tourism for its income. At times it’s an aggressive film, with harsh edits into close-ups, and a punishing soundtrack, dominated by deafening boat engine noise or silence. It feels as though it is fighting the battles of its characters through its visuals and sound. 

Martin Ward (Edward Rowe) is a struggling fisherman without a boat, who makes a living selling whatever small catches he can muster to the local pub. He holds a nasty grudge against his brother, Steven (Giles King) who has re-purposed their late father’s old trawler to take tourists on sightseeing trips, rather than continue the family tradition of fishing.

On top of this, the pair were forced to sell their gorgeous quayside family home to outsiders, Sandra and Tim Leigh (Mary Woodvine and Sam Shephard), who use it as a holiday home with their children Katie and Hugo (Georgia Ellery and Jowan Jacobs) in order to escape from London. The daughter, Katie engages in a summer romance with Steven’s ruggedly handsome son, Neil (Isaac Woodvine), however the rest of their experience feels entirely separate from the community, spent either in their home or at the pub. 

Decorative, nautical ropes and chains that Sandra buys from Amazon adorn the walls (“looks like a sex dungeon,” Martin says), while Martin has to scrape for equipment and meticulously repair his own nets by hand. It’s clear he resents the tourists, blaming their arrival for his own hardships. They seemingly have no respect for the local traditions Martin’s father taught him, which he still holds dear. As the visitors attempt to bend the village to their own will, complaining of early morning engine noise and a lack of parking, Martin leads his own one-man crusade to try to hang on to any tradition he can. Tensions boil over in a physical confrontation between the Leigh family, and Martin and local barmaid Wenna (a standout performance from unknown actor, Chloe Endean), who shares Martin’s distaste for the tourists.

The story, while feeling unquestionably Cornish, is a universal truth across the UK and the rest of the world. Traditional communities feel marginalised by a changing economy, wealthy tourists want to ‘experience’ their culture, and an ultimate lack of support from local government, which in this case Jenkin calls the “Cornish Civil War”. It is also an exploration of poverty and austerity in Britain, where inequality is represented by the two warring factions of the film. Despite its universality, it is the specifics of the film that elevate it, such as intimate shots of cutting fish loose from nets, or the attention paid to the tide that immerses you in the characters struggle.

While it’s plot revolves around tension, the film is harmonious in its themes and form. Jenkin not only wrote and directed Bait, but he also edited, shot, and composed the music. The result is a remarkable feat of storytelling, where each element succeeds in layering atmosphere and character into the film. Shots of the sea and sky have a mystical aura, while close-ups of faces, accompanied by aggressive synth and silence, feel uncomfortable and tense. The rough and tactile look of the analogue film reflects the struggles and traditions of the locals, while the disjointed and awkward dialogue shows the fundamental lack of understanding between the two groups. It feels like a tangible piece of art, where you can smell the sea, feel the breeze and touch the stones on the beach.

In the best way possible, Bait is the antithesis of Fisherman’s Friends, another film set in Cornwall released this year. Jenkin wanted to create a realistic portrait of the lives of Cornish people, like the ones from his own village of Newlyn, never resorting to stereotype. In doing so, he has created an incredible work which succeeds in both being universally relatable, and authentically Cornish.

 

by George Westaway

George Westaway is a history student at the University of Nottingham, and an aspiring writer and photographer. They feel most at home with their French Bulldog Reggie, or in a small, dark coffee shop. Their favourite films include Moonlight, Point Break, Skate Kitchen, and Cléo from 5 to 7. They cried after meeting Agnès Varda last year, and their dream is to interview Lynne Ramsay. You can follow them on twitter, @westawaygeorge

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