Bait joins a recent spate of British films that have abandoned the cities to depict a countryside in crisis. But, unlike social-realist dramas like The Levelling, Dark River and God’s Own Country, Mark Jenkin’s wonderfully weird debut subverts the kitchen sink template to create one of Berlin’s most original and satisfying films.
The Cornish coastline is the backdrop to Jenkin’s portrait of a community threatened by tourism as it flounders towards a Brexit it largely voted for. The film follows Martin (Edward Rowe) a fisherman who finds himself without a boat, and forced to sell the family cottage to a bourgeois couple named Tim and Sandra (Simon Shepherd and Mary Woodvine). They’ve been buying up properties throughout the village and renting them out on Airbnb, but have bought Martin’s house to use as their own holiday home.
They’ve refurbished it to emphasis its ‘rustic’ charm, so get annoyed when Martin continues to park his rundown van outside their house. They confront him about it, with what initially begins as a minor scuffle erupting into an outright war. But then Bait is a story built on confrontations like these, with Jenkin’s understanding that the shoreline is, after all, a meeting place between worlds. Elsewhere, Martin is also at odds with his brother Steven (Giles King) who has seized ownership of their father’s boat to take tourists out on sightseeing tours, while over at Tim and Sandra’s house their son’s inherited sense of entitlement gets the better of him when he discovers his sister has been flirting with Steven’s son Neil (Isaac Woodvine).
“Getting any?” asks a curious passerby as Martin mends the beach seines he now relies on to make a living. “Not enough” he replies with a weary sense of resignation. Cornwall has always been a proudly independently county with its own language and distinct culture, but villages like this currently find themselves under threat due to the large subsidies they used to receive from the EU to prop up the fishing industry. When the referendum results were announced, many criticised the county for ‘shooting itself in the foot’, but unlike the shoals of sneering “remainers” who took to social media, Jenkin’s doesn’t patronises his subject.
The director grew up in Cornwall and still lives there today, using his knowledge of the local area to attune the audience to these underlying anxieties so different attitudes and ideas around Brexit are allowed to emerge organically. From Soviet Montage to the French New Wave, Bait is informed by a variety of cinematic influences. Shot on a hand-cranked Bolex, using hand-processed black-and-white film stock, Jenkin favours crude close-ups – often of hands tying and unraveling complicated knots – and violent edits. The camerawork and editing are impossible to predict, and scenes of conflict are often infiltrated by portent images of brutality.
But there’s a playfulness on display too, and the film has a distinctly British sense of humour that is perhaps best observed when Martin informs his brother about the ‘nautical’ additions made to their childhood home. “Been modernised” he informs him with a mischievous grin, “all ropes and chains. Looks like a sex dungeon!” An attempt to understanding the anger and anxiety that fuelled the EU referendum, Bait is a peculiar work of genius. A formally dazzling, half-comic portrait of a community struggling against the tides of change.
The Berlin Film Festival runs from 7-17 February. Follow our coverage here.
Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble