It’s early days, sure, but it’s fair to say that British film has yet to really capture the trauma of the societal schism of post-Brexit vote UK. There was the hastily-made tv effort with a supposedly welsh Cumberbatch about the referendum campaign with a lasting impact that will struggle to go beyond this sentence. Other than that, however…nada. Mark Jenkin’s undoubtedly singular and deeply strange drama Bait might just, in years to come, go down as the work which best understood the simmering tensions and political polarisations of the age.
Of course, Bait is not a film about Brexit. It could have easily came out ten years prior without the baggage of the period it emerged from and few would have found it out of place. Yet the bewildering antiquation of the astute direction, coupled with fizzling unease that permeates its DNA, makes it an oddly perfect fit to represent the class conflict oft-touted as being responsible for that historic plebiscite. Why yes, I am saying this about a deliberately stilted, black-and-white drama about fishing and entitled tourists.
We are in a small, Cornish village. Martin (Edward Rowe) is a fisherman without a boat and nearly without purpose. Despite the spectre of economic insecurity, he ploughs on, sans vessel, in a vocation that offers him hard work and little reward. His brother Steven, long departed from the trade for reasons obvious to everyone but his sibling, earns his keep by catering to the tourist sector – using their late father’s boat to offer inflatable penis-laden, sea-fairing stag-dos to obstreperous men.
What’s worse, their childhood home is now resided in by a well-to-do tourist family from the east who only visit during the summer months. When they leave, they take with them their purchasing power and the village suffers for it in the colder seasons. Bait’s story of a coastal economy made deprived by moneyed outsiders may not exactly be breaking new ground but it’s how it’s presented that sets it apart. Jenkin shoots everything in monochromatic 16mm. Voices are crudely dubbed over and dodgy cue marks suggest a bygone era of filmmaking.
At first, it might come off as decidedly inept before it all becomes downright absorbing. At times it’s like your great-grandad’s home movie. At others it’s like Eisenstein mixed in with an episode of Heartbeat. Scenes of shoreline labour even recall Robert J. Flaherty’s elements-battling pseudodocumentaries of the 1930s. All of this makes high drama of the work-a-day squabbles between the incoming population and working-class locals. An argument over a parking spot in front of a private estate is both skewering social-commentary and nail-biting drama. Even a late confrontation, involving a sabotaged lobster trap that represents a man’s livelihood, feels like it’s about to erupt in Do the Right Thing fashion (no, really). One bloody melodramatic coda, however, might just be a step too far.
Bait’s Cornwall is a society facing an unspoken, existential crisis that goes beyond mere nativism. Both sides long for a past version of the town that may never have existed in the first place. The wealthier visitors want the picturesque Cornish town one might see on a postcard. They must also know their presence will prevent that idyllic version from ever being realised.
Maybe that’s what Bait is–with its truly bizarre throwback touch–an uncanny realisation of that idyllic past. As mentioned, Jenkin has not made a film about Brexit, just one that understands it better than most.