There aren’t nearly enough films about fishermen. There appears to be just one very recent 2019 short film from the Dominican Republic about fisherwomen on IMDb, so technically they are almost invisible to film-makers, but fishermen are generally under-represented at the cinema, too. In spite of the fact that there is so much cinematic potential in commercial fishing – the inherent dangerousness and the crew dynamics of a testosterone-fuelled boat, the difficulty of keeping afloat both literally and financially, the potential triumph over adversity or the tragedy of the mariner’s fate – directors and producers just don’t seem to have any interest in telling stories about longliners or lobster-potting.
The Perfect Storm (Petersen, 2000) capitalises on many of the lures above but its anchovy-thin plot and overbearing sentimentalism ultimately drowns out any enjoyment. Luchino Visconti’s 1948 neorealist masterpiece La Terra Trema is undoubtedly the most critically acclaimed of all fishing-based films, but after 70 years, there has to be room in the canon for a more contemporary depiction of the fishermans’ plight.
Mark Jenkin’s new film Bait is therefore a welcome addition to the small haul of films about fisherman, and although it doesn’t use almost any of the hypothetical spectacle or patent drama suggested above, it is one of the most original and interesting British films of the last 20 years. Shot on location in Charlestown and Penzance in Cornwall using a 16mm wind-up Bolex camera on black-and-white Kodak film, it centres on a boat-less fisherman called Martin and his fractious relationships with both his brother Steven and the Leigh family, who are staying in the village over the summer. Steven is now using their father’s trawler to take out day-tripping tourists, while the Leighs are living in his parents’ old home, making it “modern” and putting in a port-hole feature, much to Martin’s amusement.
Cornish comedian and actor Edward Rowe as Martin brilliantly embodies the absurdity of having a semi-antiquated profession and a sizable degree of bitterness while remaining likeable through his commitment to his family’s heritage and his sense of humour. He is frequently watched and given advice by his dead father, who adds to the already unsettling atmosphere created by the film’s bold visual style. As the Bolex camera has such a tight field of vision, the claustrophobia of the emotionally closed off Martin is apparent everywhere he goes, from his local pub to the (presumably) wide-open beach.
All the dialogue was added in post-production and it creates a further unnerving disconnection between the images and the audio. The flat, uninflected tone of some of the actors creates an effect somewhere between early Kaurismäki and the public service announcements Harry Enfield spoofed in the ‘90s. Jenkins processed all the film by hand, which adds to the films highly personal tone but never makes it feel provincial or limited.
The festering antagonism between local fishermen and the invading second-home tourists is is portrayed in a balanced and thoughtful way. Assuming that Mark Jenkin’s loyalty lies with the plight of Martin’s dying way of life, he doesn’t caricature the rubberneckers by making them total idiots or ignorant prigs. Instead, he unflinchingly shows their sense of entitlement and self-righteousness while partially vindicating them by showing their lack of awareness, and that fundamentally, they are just people too, kind and considerate in many ways. It’s refreshing to see a film that highlights underlying social issues without the relentless bludgeoning of more recent Loach offerings while still remaining funny and highly entertaining.
While it is too niche a subject matter and too bizarre in its methods and style to have extensive box-office draw, Bait will likely be a critics’ favourite, and justifiably so. It is uncomfortable at times, but its idiosyncrasies are what separate it out from the period dramas and dull literary adaptations that have been the mainsail of the British film industry during the 21st century. Hopefully Mark Jenkin will turn his attention to other Cornish subjects and create more beautiful, individual and exceptional films like Bait.