The crux of Mark Jenkin’s new film Bait is summed up in a single terse exchange. Martin, a Cornish fisherman, is caught in an argument with the pub landlady. His brother, Steven, has given up trying to make a living from fishing and is renting out the boat – which Martin relied on for his own livelihood – to tourists. Exasperated, the landlady asks, ‘do you think Steven cares how he makes his money?’ Martin replies, ‘well, he fucking should do’.
In Bait, the audience is forced to confront, again and again, the callousness of British society. Ours is a nation where people have been told that they don’t have to care about how they make money. The property-owning classes, allowed to consolidate their wealth through buy-to-let, have pushed us into a cost-of-living crisis. Our clothes and electrical goods are made in sweat-shops that we are aware of, but disinclined or unable to boycott. British-made bombs and teargas cannisters are bursting over the heads of civilians worldwide while we watch on TV. The earth’s atmosphere is heating up because our industrial economics, which have already immiserated billions. We close our borders to people fleeing these catastrophes, and pay off other countries to detain them instead.
None of these global issues are addressed in Bait, a tightly focused and well-observed social drama in which local workers are pitted against tourist landlords. In its careful and persistent presentation of socio-economic conflict, however, the film reveals at a microcosmic level the pitiless logic which has produced macrocosmic calamity.
The drama rests on the intergenerational relationship between the Cornish Ward family and the ‘plummy’ Leighs, moving in from hundreds of miles away. They are brought together both by economic and social circumstances: although the Wards have sold their house to the Leighs, Martin still needs to get to the beach by a ramp on the property, where he parks his van. The Leighs, feeling that this disturbs their holiday-guests, have the vehicle clamped. The Ward son also starts going out with the Leigh daughter, the one of the few genuinely kindly relationship depicted between local and incoming people.
Despite the literal sense in which the two families live side by side, the Leighs do everything they can to minimise their contact with the Wards. Performing polite acquaintance, they patronise the Wards, set up legalistic intermediaries, and begin to walk past without acknowledgement. Interactions soon tip from basic unpleasantness into a criminality borne from privilege. By the film’s climax, its antagonists are pointlessly, carelessly, unwittingly murderous. On the way there, they subject people they barely know to grinding humiliations, stripping them of their independence while telling them to be grateful for it.
The film is bleak, but witty – albeit with a one-sided emphasis. The Wards can joke, be gentle, and take an interest in their surroundings even while expressing disappointment and hostility. The Leighs and their fellow holiday-makers manage only to insult, swear, sneer and complain.
The film’s success isn’t only thematic. It is also a great formal achievement. The decision to shoot on scratchy, high-contrast 16mm film feels apt, not gimmicky. By eschewing naturalism, the expressive qualities of low-grade film are brought out. The use of black-and-white footage can be read as making a temporal point, harking back to eras past. Rather than interpreting this as a commentary on people ‘left behind’, the filmmakers have employed the aesthetic purposefully to play with the trope. They know that many audiences will want to romanticise the Cornish experience, or feel nostalgic remorse at the declining local fishing traditions. The footage is grainy like the protagonist’s van is weather-worn and the houses are quaintly run-down. When an incongruously modern, shiny Land Rover rolls into frame, the disparity is only emphasised. Jenkin’s is a psychological rather than an aesthetic deployment of film.
British cinema audiences also have come to associate socially engaged cinema with a documentary-style, or ‘kitchen sink’ realism, which purports to record the external world objectively. Bait nods to but does not follow this tradition. It stays firmly within the realms of the possible but is constructed with lyricism. Jenkin’s embrace of artifice is powerful. It forces the audience to consider the film as an object, not just a story, to ask questions of the filmmaker’s intentions and of themselves. As such, Bait can be seen as part of a wider trend in socially-engaged filmmaking which risks alienating its audience in the name of subjective argumentation. Although each director is producing very different work, the surrealism of Boots Riley’s (2018) Sorry to Bother You and the fusion of documentary and the counterfactual in Ayo Akingbade’s trilogy No News Today (2016-19) echo Jenkin’s vision.
Will Bait make audiences care differently about British society and inequality – and is caring enough? When I watched the film at the cinema, an elderly couple with accents as plummy as the Leighs loudly complained that they couldn’t read the rolling end credits. They wanted to know where, precisely, the film had been shot. They thought they recognised the locations. As they walked out of the cinema, one of them remarked: ‘It really makes you think differently about Cornwall’. How differently remains to be seen.
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