The success of Bait at the back end of last year caught everyone by surprise. The low-budget, black and white film – written and directed by Mark Jenkin – hit UK cinemas in the dog days of summer and became a genuine word-of-mouth indie sensation, quickly expanding out of the small number of theatrical screens it debuted on and still going strong at the UK box office months later. It also grabbed two BAFTA nominations for Outstanding British Film and Outstanding Debut for a British director or producer, and no one will be a bit surprised if it takes home both of them.
Most of the focus of reviews and articles were on Bait’s eye-catching visual aesthetic and that was entirely understandable. Shot on a vintage wind-up camera, using 16mm monochrome film that Jenkin painstakingly hand-processed himself, it was grainy, scratchy and austere, sticking out like the sorest of thumbs even in the eccentric landscape of independent cinema. The question now, as Bait makes its home cinema debut where it can be watched multiple times and pored over, is whether it has the substance to match its unusual style. The answer, I’m glad to report, is a resounding yes. In fact, it's a film that, the more you watch it, the more you find yourself drawn into its world and characters.
Ostensibly about the impact of recession and gentrification on a small Cornish fishing village, Bait concerns brothers Martin (Edward Rowe) and Steven (Giles King), who have, at some point in the recent past, run their late dad’s fishing business together. However, as it has become harder to make a living from catching and selling fish, there has been a parting of the ways. Steven has kept the fishing boat, which he now uses to ferry groups of tourists about on sight-seeing expeditions, while Martin has refused to have anything to do with the enterprise.
Stubborn, difficult and desperate to cling to his family heritage and traditions, he continues to fish – despite not having a boat and only a handful of customers – and also feuds with Tim and Sandra (Simon Shepherd and Mary Woodvine), a well-to-do couple from out of town, who “summer” in the village and have bought his family’s old cottage, renting out rooms to tourists. The scene is set for confrontation and worse.
Although a fair few of Bait’s characters get time to shine – including teenagers Neil (Isaac Woodvine) and Hugo (Jowan Jacobs), whose mutual enmity becomes central to the film’s direction of travel – it is Martin who commands the lion’s share of the spotlight. The film could even be viewed as a fascinating character study with him its subject.
The loss of his fishing boat has emasculated Martin – he can no longer take to sea, so is trapped on land, and reduced to setting up nets on the beach to catch a few fish. He needs a boat of his own and puts each day’s meagre takings into a biscuit tin, which he keeps on the windowsill in his kitchen, in the same way a child might save up for a new video game. Rowe (a stand-up comedian in real life, known as the 'Kernow King') is spectacularly good at selling Martin’s dichotomy – he’s a great bearded colossus of a man who is nevertheless vulnerable and clearly in pain. Impotent fury hangs over him like a thick sea fog.
Although frequently bleak, Bait is just as often hilarious, with brilliant, barbed lines flying left, right and centre ("He was so fucking posh, I honestly thought he was speaking German!"). But most of the genuine coarseness here is provided not by the locals but by the likes of Tim and Sandra, who have no genuine links to the area, peddle an ersatz version of Cornishness, and actually do very little to help the local economy. When Steven sees what has been done to his family cottage, he reacts like a victim of vandalism, lamenting: "They knocked down mother’s old pantry”. It is quite the saddest delivery of a line in the entire film.
You could argue that Tim – glass of Prosecco in hand, perma-sneer etched on his entitled little face – is drawn a little too broadly, but I’m not sure Jenkin is particularly interested in being scrupulously fair. The director isn't suggesting Cornwall should only be the preserve of the Cornish either, just that visitors and tourists show a modicum of respect to its people and traditions.
Bait might slather on its symbolism a little too heavily at times; violent seas, glowering skies, dead fish, and a live lobster waiting to go into a pot of boiling water all hint at these characters’ troubles and further agonies to come. But it’s easily forgivable because the images Jenkin conjures here are frequently so raw, earthy and full of texture. He finds beauty in the everyday, too, particularly in the fisherman’s craft, whether it’s Martin tying a complicated knot to secure a lobster pot to its hook or Neil gently untangling his catch from nets on the beach.
If Bait had been shot, say, in colour on digital cameras, it might have lost some of its uniqueness, but would still be smartly written and compellingly acted, its themes would still resonate. And its editing would still be some of the best you'll see anywhere – particularly the film's effective use of flash-forwards to tease and discombobulate, and a superb scene in which the director expertly cuts again and again between two different arguments in the local pub to hilarious and dramatic effect. The curious form and style of Jenkin's film may be what draws you in, but it's the content of his story that ensures you will revisit Bait again and again.
This dual-format release from the BFI features an audio commentary by Jenkin and film critic Mark Kermode, who championed Bait from the start, calling it “One of the defining British films of the decade”. In a fascinating and wide-ranging conversation, Jenkin really drills down into the sheer graft and ingenuity required to bring his project to fruition, particularly in terms of hand-processing the 16mm film, then editing all 5km of it together into a coherent whole. He also discusses the film’s 20-year gestation, his great affection for Cornwall’s "free-thinking" fishing community, and why two of his influences – Bresson and Tarkovsky – probably wouldn’t like his work.
There’s more of Kermode conversing with Jenkin in a 30-minute Q&A recorded at the BFI Southbank. Although the pair cover similar territory to the commentary, it’s nice to see them interacting "in the flesh".
You also get three short films the director made in 2015 and ’16, the best of which is The Essential Cornishman. Shot in the same way as Bait, we see a fisherman preparing to take his boat out to sea – perhaps for the final time – to a soundtrack of Beat-style poetry. It should feel incongruous but works perfectly.
Scenes on the Cornish Riviera, filmed circa 1912, is a sort of extended advertisement to encourage people to visit Cornwall, sponsored by the Great Western Railway. This 20-minute film offers snapshots of life in towns and villages such as Looe, Polperro, Truro and Falmouth, and is a delight.
Even more charming is The Saving of Bill Blewitt, from 1936, a half-hour drama sponsored by the GPO which encourages people to take out post office savings accounts. Bill’s fishing boat has broken up on the rocks and he’s desperately trying to save up for another, while he makes ends meet breaking rocks at the local quarry. It offers an affectionate portrait of working-class life between the wars and I loved its use of non-professional actors from the wonderfully named Cornish fishing village of Mousehole.
A solid package of extras is rounded off by a couple of trailers and – with the disc's first pressing – a booklet featuring new writing on Bait (as well as the short films presented as extras here) by critics Jessica Klang, Jason Wood, and Tara Judah.