It’s tempting to view every piece of art emanating from the UK at the moment as some sort of Brexit metaphor. Britain is in a period of constitutional anarchy, with the people of the nation pushed into two disparate groups on just about every issue, leaving the center-ground completely abandoned. The new outing from writer-director-editor-composer-DP Mark Jenkin – the ultimate multi-hyphenate – illustrates that divide as cleanly as possible by literally depicting the world in black and white, as a Cornish fishing village struggles to find an identity in the 21st century.
Martin Ward (Edward Rowe) is a fisherman without a boat, toiling away with a net stretched across the shore in a sort of self-imposed martyrdom. His brother, Steven (Giles King), has chosen to modernise the family business, using their late father’s vessel as a pleasure boat for the new influx of tourists entering their village. One particularly grim scene shows a boozy stag party – with the groom dressed as an enormous penis – filing on to the boat for a rowdy day at sea. Needless to say, Martin views this as a slight on their dad’s memory, hence his boat-free exile.
Much of Jenkin’s film is simply devoted to following Martin around as he perseveres stubbornly with his traditional existence, despite the fact he can’t go out to fish and is increasingly on the breadline. His intransigence serves as a metaphor for a portion of the Britain that voted for Brexit out of a misty-eyed longing to return to a past that has long since disappeared. Cornish comic Rowe – continuing the trend for comedians going straight in British social realist dramas started by Dave Johns in I, Daniel Blake – exists in a barely restrained fugue of rage, stuck in a rut almost entirely born of his own unwillingness to change.
It’s a performance of intense subtlety, with Rowe wearing every emotion on his face, which is often depicted in unforgiving close-up by Jenkin. Martin is locked in a petulant rivalry with a middle-class couple (Simon Shepherd and Mary Woodvine) who recently bought his harbourside cottage and transformed it into a nautical-themed guest house – “ropes and chains like a sex dungeon”, says Martin, almost spitting the word “modernised” as he describes the decor. Their discussions are initially tense, but quickly become fiery and there’s a sense that a flashpoint is only an inch away.
The film’s visual palette is, potently, as stuck in time as its protagonist. Jenkin used 16mm film and a Bolex cine-camera to shoot the movie and the footage is pregnant with scratches and imperfections as if reflecting Martin’s romanticised, nostalgic view of the world. This is far from a picture postcard story, though, with Jenkin’s idiosyncratic use of montage bringing in incongruous flashes of the past or future – the flashing lights of a police van, a prone body on the deck of a boat – to highlight the fragility of the social equilibrium in place. Bait has the sense of a slice-of-life movie that is winding inexorably towards a nightmare.
Jenkin elegantly sketches out his vision of a Cornwall invaded by outsiders from further North. It’s a world in which a 50p on the side of a pool table is an existential threat to the entrenched ‘winner stays on’ system and the pub which houses the table is the core of the community. Jenkin has an eye for catching details – the intricacy of a fisherman’s knot or the Western-like close-ups of hands held to character’s sides, knuckles twitching with tension. If the first half of the movie yields little in terms of incident, it makes up for it in the depth of its world and the crackling tension of its powder-keg atmosphere.
Despite the presence of Brexit in the background of all British art right now – and quite literally in the case of a radio broadcast in Bait – it’s something of a red herring in this case if you’ll pardon the on-the-nose nautical idiom. Bait is less about Brexit, specifically, than it is the polarisation brought about by the referendum debate. It’s a cautionary tale about the problem with vacating the center-ground and retreating into tribal positions.
The answer, as in so many cases, lies in the ability to live and let live while accepting the necessary changes of a society moving with the rising tide of modernisation. This is a film in which a new equilibrium is just about visible on the horizon, if change is allowed to take place. Jenkin’s movie, with its odd filmmaking quirks and time-bending editing, is a triumph of intelligent, insightful cinema that simultaneously feels bracingly up-to-date and like a time capsule depiction of an era that has long since ebbed away.
Dir: Mark Jenkin
Scr: Mark Jenkin
Cast: Edward Rowe, Isaac Woodvine, Giles King, Simon Shepherd, Mary Woodvine, Chloe Endean, Jowan Jacobs, Georgia Ellery
Prd: Kate Byers, Linn Waite
DOP: Mark Jenkin
Music: Mark Jenkin
Run time: 89 mins
Bait is in UK cinemas from 30th August.