'Bait': Film Review | Berlin 2019

Courtesy of Berlinale
A stylish experimental drama from England's rugged Wild West.

Shot on vintage monochrome 16mm film, British director Mark Jenkin's lo-fi debut feature exposes hidden social tensions below the sleepy surface of a picturesque fishing village.

A timeless story with a lo-fi monochrome aesthetic, Bait was one of the most original and stylistically bold films to world premiere in Berlin last week. It was shot in Cornwall in the far southwest of England, a rocky peninsula renowned for its ruggedly beautiful coastline and its impoverished local economy, which is heavily dependent on seasonal tourism. This microbudget production was partly crewed by staff and students from the film school at Falmouth University on the south Cornish coast, where writer-director Mark Jenkin is an associate lecture. Jenkin also served as cinematographer, editor and score composer.

Bait is grounded in simple, archetypal themes of tradition versus modernity, poor natives against rich invaders. The surface plot has the stark feel of classic neorealism, but there are more interesting layers going on below the scuffed surface as Jenkin detours into experimental montage technique, Guy Maddin-style retro pastiche and English folk-horror tropes. Shooting with a vintage Bolex cine-camera on black-and-white 16mm film, the director then hand-processed his footage to give it a scratchy, glitchy, antique feel. All dialogue and sound effects were overdubbed afterward. These arty factors should prove crucial in securing further festival bookings for this ambitiously weird debut, as well as providing a marketable angle for potential niche distributors.

Local Cornish comedian Edward Rowe stars as the film's brooding anti-hero Martin Ward, a fisherman who has fallen on hard times, and largely blames the big-city tourists who have colonized his once-thriving coastal village with vacation homes that remain empty most of the year. This conflict is personal for Martin, having been forced to sell the picturesque harborside cottage where he was raised to a wealthy London couple, Sandra and Tom Leigh (Mary Woodvine and Simon Shepherd), who have converted it into a folksy holiday retreat. Meanwhile, Martin's semi-estranged brother Steven (Giles King) now uses the former family fishing boat to ferry boorish, boozy sightseers around the bay.

As he scrapes a meager living from the seafood that he nets along the rocky coastline at dawn every day, Martin dreams of buying his own boat and going back to fishing full time. But suppressed anger is slowly eating him alive. A minor dispute with the Leighs over parking his battered truck outside their cottage soon escalates into a full-scale class war, which is exacerbated by the budding sexual relationship between Martin's handsome nephew Neil (Isaac Woodvine) and the Leighs' teenage daughter Katie (Georgia Ellery). This pressure-cooker mix of suspicion and resentment eventually boils over into confrontation, retribution and lethal violence.

The dramatic core of Bait has a soap-opera simplicity that sometimes jars. Jenkin seems to sentimentalize the dying hardscrabble traditions of Cornish fishing communities, and arguably exaggerates their redneck resistance to change for contrived effect. Some of the performances are stiff and several characters are crudely drawn, especially the posh outsiders from London, who make Mike Leigh's haughty upper-class caricatures look subtle by comparison. Perhaps Jenkin's choice of surname for the Leighs is an audience-nudging clue here, but it is never entirely clear if this coarse characterization is all part of his purposely formalist vision or just the inevitable consequence of filmmaking inexperience and minimal budget.

But there is sophistication and scholarship at work in Bait, too, particularly in its tightly structured frame compositions, mostly divided by lateral and diagonal lines, and a recurring use of silent movie-style facial close-ups to amplify melodrama. A handful of time-jumping montages also draw from the deep historical canon of experimental cinema, from Sergei Eisenstein to Nic Roeg and beyond. Jenkin's heavily stylized debut is a disorienting experience at first, but it ultimately creates a boldly Expressionistic mood of uncanny beauty and mesmerizing otherness. The director's own spare musical score, a kind of slow-motion sea shanty woven from doleful drones and wheezes, only deepens this alluring aura of dreamlike strangeness.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Forum)
Production company: Early Day Films
Cast: Edward Rowe, Giles King, Mary Woodvine, Simon Shepherd, Chloe Endean, Isaac Woodvine
Director, screenwriter, cinematographer, editor, music: Mark Jenkin
Producers: Kate Byers, Linn Waite
Sales: The Festival Company, Paris

88 minutes