Tuesday 10 September 2019

Fisherman's blues: "Bait"

One of the reasons British critics have traditionally looked down on British films is that so many have been so much of a muchness: hours of safe-bet country house cosiness, flimsy romcoms sticking to the Four Weddings template long after Richard Curtis has tumbled from his pedestal, hard yards of fallout from the Rettendon Range Rover murders, innumerable crowdpleasers featuring indomitable proles overcoming obstacles you could see coming from considerable distance. Bait, the breakthrough feature of the writer-director-editor Mark Jenkin, is something else entirely: a film that veers conspicuously away from these formulas, and rejects comforting complacency from the word go. For starters, it's defiantly regional cinema, unfolding around a Cornish fishing village being overrun with upper-middle class types who've arrived in Chelsea tractors loaded with Waitrose shopping bags to colonise a territory already beset with tensions. Secondly, Jenkin insistently fragments these tensions, refusing to let the film fall into recognisable schematics: he shoots an insane amount of coverage, seeking out close-ups of almost every detail in every scene for what they might offer (or break) up, then doubles down on the insanity in post by inserting brief flickers of scenes to come, a tactic that felt like a major commercial risk back in the heyday of Nic Roeg. Shot in the tight Academy ratio, with overdubbed sound, on jerky, scratchy black-and-white stock that jitters and flares and steadfastly refuses to yield the conventionally pretty images on which the British film industry was founded, Bait immediately gives the impression of a rough-hewn relic from the Twenties, or the Forties, or the Sixties. Which vault did they dig this one up from?

The glowing reviews the film has so far occasioned - born of sincere delight at discovering a genuine mutation or deviation from the norm - haven't quite noted that it takes some time, perhaps a third of Bait's running time, to get your head around its otherness. This is not an easy film to settle into; Jenkin throws the viewer into it as real-world trawlermen toss fish guts over the sides of their vessel. (Its particular shock-of-the-new is exactly that of icy, salty water: the film slaps your face, wakes you up, obliges you to paddle around in it for a bit, getting your bearings.) One vague reassurance is that the characters themselves seem all at sea, bobbing around and sometimes up against one another: the beardy fisherman hero (Edward Rowe), who seems to have enough on his plate even before he initiates a minor-league class war; the whey-faced, thin-lipped poshos, alternating between condescension and withering passive-aggression; the gobby innkeeper's daughter (Chloe Endean), whose cheek keeps cutting through any art-movie feyness Bait threatens to exhibit. The details, too, wash up on screen with the vivid physicality of seashells: we pick up a faded biscuit tin full of pound notes, a garage door daubed with an artless NO PARKING notification, a 50-pence piece set down firmly on a pooltable. The intense attention to everything could have proven overwhelming, wearing, but everything registers, and those edits that initially cause such tension in the viewer eventually explain themselves as descriptions of tension: clock the rhyme Jenkin fashions between a knuckle clenching on a wooden gate and a buoy being squeezed against the harbour wall, and shudder. If the film appears on the point of rupture, it's as nothing compared to the fragile community it depicts - or, one might add, the fractious country it's been released into.

Crucially, Jenkin isn't just passing through: you catch him looking around these shores for distress signals or signs of hope, and giving serious thought to how he might stitch these together into something that might be described as authentically cinematic. If Bait strikes the eye and ear as a throwback, that's partly down to the heightened levels of craft worked into it: after years of underwritten, sketchily shot, themeless Britpics rushed together before the money runs out, that might well seem unfamiliar, if not outright alien. It remains the most artful British film of late to feature both a character dressed in an inflatable stag-night penis costume, and a taproom confrontation that concludes with one character calling another a "prancing Lycra cunt" - some of that saltiness persists, helping to stave off any suspicion Bait might just be an academic exercise in reviving artisanal methods of filmmaking. Yet you cannot fail to spot the skill in Jenkin's shotmaking, and his prodigious gifts for montage: one sequence, paralleling the fisherman retying his lobster pots with the landowners teasing the meat from the cooked lobsters' shells, forms a demonstration of not only first-rate cutting but trenchant editorial, nimbly differentiating between those who still have to work in this country and those now enjoying the benefits of that labour. What's around it comprises a masterclass in taking a small, self-contained story - a tale ripped from the headlines of the surviving free papers - and getting it to resonate beyond its square, monochrome frames via an extraordinary alertness to image and sound. A film about nothing so much as a parking dispute thus develops, via a radio report on chlorinated chicken and a mounting dispute between haves and have-nots, into the first fully notable British movie of the Brexit era - though Jenkin's central accomplishment there has been to assemble a movie, rather than reels of celluloid that more closely resemble television. The Downton Abbey film opens in T minus three days.

Bait is now playing in selected cinemas.

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