Mark Jenkin’s innovative and haunting tale of gentrification in a small Cornish fishing village signals a new and vital voice in British cinema.
Martin (Edward Rowe) is a fisherman who has lost his boat – his brother Steven (Giles King) has transformed the working ship into a tourist attraction, taking groups of unbearable stag parties on trips along the coast. Meanwhile, tensions between the locals and the Londoners buying up the old cottages along the harbour are growing, with Martin locked in a silent war with the Leigh family who have renovated his family home, complete with fishing nets that were bought on the internet.
Jenkin transforms what could be a social-realist, straightforward film into something hypnotic and oddly dream-like – not only through his use of vintage, black and white 16mm film, but also the acting choices of the cast. The stilted, almost awkward delivery is reminiscent of perhaps early melodramas from the 1950s and 60s, but Bait clearly draws influences from the French New Wave and Sergei Eisenstein, with one sequence forming a clear parallel with the ‘In The Name of God and Country’ montage from his 1927 film October.
There is a constant juxtaposition between the middle-class London invaders and the people of the village – which is never named, highlighting the universality of gentrification across the country where working class areas are being taken over, “spruced up” and local residents displaced by rising rent costs. They have shining, spotless Land Rovers, while Martin’s similar truck is covered in dents, marks and signs of use and hard work, contrasted with the status and class symbol that the cars represent for the Leigh family. Martin hauls in fish, carefully placing them in used plastic bags to give to neighbours for free, while they stock their fridge with blueberries, champagne and meats, artificial and manufactured in their plastic packaging. Jenkin’s use of montage invites us to make these visual comparisons, indicating from the beginning that there are clear and defined boundaries that separate these two opposing parties.
That’s not to say that there is a complete division: for the younger generations this arrival presents a chance to expand their horizons, to rebel against their parents in the relative safety of a Cornish fishing village. Katie Leigh (Georgia Ellery) sets her sights on Martin’s nephew Neil (Isaac Woodvine) and the almost tender relationship that starts to bloom is an indicator of the possible change in attitudes that could arise – but middle-class solidarity wins out, as it always will. That’s not to say that the relationship is without criticism from the off: Hugo Leighs (Jowan Jacobs, exceptionally infuriating in his privilege) seems offended in his sister taking an interest in a “rough” local, while the barmaid at the local pub Wenna (Chloe Endean) snidely wonders “How’s she going to suck his dick with that plum in her mouth”, in one of the delightfully funny lines that pepper the script.
While typically a film about gentrification in a Cornish fishing village might not be the most riveting concept, Jenkins transforms Bait into something that reaches deeper, a tale of the increasingly inequality in this country. The rich can buy second houses on the picturesque coast and aspire after the calm, idyllic perception of Cornwall, while the actual residents are displaced, maligned and literally have their livelihoods taken away from them. The poignancy of the film is not lost to the aesthetic choices, it merely enhances the sense of timelessness that Bait captures, a story of wealth, privilege and the struggle to survive.