Contemporary British cinema has continued to surprise and amaze in recent years with the vast array of stunning directorial debuts. From the likes of Lady Macbeth to The Levelling, such first features have introduced adept directors and actors alike to the world.
Emerging from the shadows into the limelight, as these films equally did so, Mark Jenkin’s Bait arrives in cinemas this week as a timely reminder of the talent and ingenious filmmakers upon these very fine shores. Still, Jenkin’s debut is one of the most captivating British films in quite some time, transcending previously mentioned films in its experimental tone and thematic values.
Set in a small present-day Cornish fishing village during summer, Martin Ward (Edward Rowe) is a fisherman struggling amongst uncertain times. In part created by the influx of tourism, chiefly created by the well to do Sandra (Mary Woodvine) and Tim (Simon Shepherd), their presence has caused a volatile relationship between themselves and locals, such as Martin. The main factor behind these tensions rests in the couple’s decision to purchased and renovated Martin’s formerly family home into a part Airbnb and part fetishisation on working-class coastal life.
Whilst the couple and their two teenage children Katie (Georgia Ellery) and Hugo (Jowan Jacobs) idyll enjoy their time away from London, Martin, his brother Steven (Giles King) and nephew Neil (Isaac Woodvine) are forced to work and make ends meet. The dire situation has thus resulted in Steven transforming his father’s once fairly profitable fishing boat into a 30-minute booze cruise for visiting pleasure seekers. Gentrification is not just a faraway notion here but an aspect of daily life that is genuinely plaguing Martin and his family’s lives. The disparity between the rich and poor could not be pronounced in this setting and Jenkin makes the sociopolitical context central throughout the incredibly tight 89 minutes runtime.
Imbued with a stark reflection on modern life within a community plagued by social and economic imbalances, the director’s stunning first feature possesses idiosyncracies not just on a narrative level but also on a cinematic one. The unfolding narrative is captured on a 1970s 16mm wind-up Bolex camera with a black and white Kodak film. Given a further tactile quality, the film itself was processed by the director. Chiefly in these two components alone, Bait is a unique film relic that feels as though it has been pulled out from the sands of cinematic time.
Through crafting an unparalleled film print, processing it with substances like coffee, Jenkin could appear to place style over stances. With setting his film in a community that is close to his heart, the character of Martin feels a fully-rendered person and not just deployed for pathos. Portrayed by Rowe, Jenkin’s script allows for satirical comments on gentrification through the actor’s dexterous ability to convey sarcasm towards the well-off tourists. The director does not only focus on the moving image through shooting on grainy Kodak film but uses sound techniques associated with Italian spaghetti westerns and giallo films too. Through post syncing sound and redubbing his actor’s dialogue these methods further the film’s cinematic spell. By merging the post-recorded dialogue of his actors with the 16mm footage, Bait’s evocative spirit reverberates from frame to frame.
Ultimately a small tale of the struggles of ordinary working-class people against the tourist trade, in a wider political context, the film exists in a deeply contemporary space. Through its filmmaking craft, this debut remarkably operates in a timeless space. The traditional forms of working and filmmaking seamlessly exist, still, modern ways of editing, sound design and an urgent political presence of gentrification all come to the boil. As any good fisherman should do, search out this precious catch of before it floats away.