What a difference 85 years can make. In the decades since nonfiction pioneer Robert Flaherty developed the aesthetic that is irresistibly evoked by U.K. experimental filmmaker Mark Jenkin in his 2019 feature debut, the categorization of Flaherty’s films, such as “Man of Aran,” has evolved as his fidelity to what we now accept as documentary truth has been debunked.
But today, the tension that exists in Jenkin’s hand-processed, 16mm, black-and-white “Bait” is not between real and staged — indeed, the archly antiqued technique, from the warm, scratched fuzz of the film’s surface to the beautifully creaky and ever-so-slightly out-of-sync post-dubbing of dialogue and sound effects, consistently reminds us that we’re watching fiction. Instead, the film’s crackling chiaroscuro serves to make “Bait,” which in narrative terms is slight, feel in form and presentation part of the same ongoing conflict as that which cues its story.
A tale of Cornish fishermen whose traditional livelihoods are threatened by an influx of gentrifying outsiders even as many local business are getting richer as a result, “Bait” is a modern yarn told in an archaic format. Perhaps it’s not too fanciful to imagine the rise of digital filmmaking, which makes a previously rarefied and remote art form more accessible but also more sterile and somehow less artisanal, as the gentrification of cinema.
In square frames of startling simplicity and beauty, Jenkin, who also acts as his own DP, screenwriter, editor, and composer, tells a soapy story starring resentful fisherman Martin (Edward Rowe), a lifelong resident of this small coastal town in Cornwall, with its pretty little cove and tiny stone harbor. Martin, dedicated to not letting the old ways die, is particularly disgruntled with Tim (Simon Shepard) and Sandra Leigh (Mary Woodvine), the bougie couple who bought his childhood home, renovated it, and now partly rent it out to visiting tourists, while also themselves holidaying there with their teenage children Katie (Georgia Ellery) and Hugo (Jowan Jacobs).
Part of Martin’s resentment is directed at his estranged brother Steven (Giles King), who now uses the boat the brothers once shared not for fishing but to take tourists out on trips around the bay. Such pragmatism may skip a generation, though: Steven’s good-looking son Neil (Isaac Woodvine) aspires to the fisherman life like his uncle Martin. Neil is not as resistant to all aspects of gentrification, however, and soon hooks up with the pretty Katie, much to the bemusement of salty bargirl Wenna (Chloe Endean). “How’s she gunna suck his d— with that plum in her mouth? Can’t understand a bloody word she says,” sneers Wenna, while Katie’s insufferably entitled brother Hugo is also disgusted by the relationship, though for more straightforwardly snobbish reasons.
The plotlines are tangled as fishing nets, but the stark imagery is strikingly uncomplicated. Often assembled in montages of closeups and detail views of hands lowering lobster traps or slipping crumpled tenners into a biscuit-tin marked “boat,” there’s a naïveté to the aesthetic that is its own form of commentary. The rough-hewn honesty of the image imparts implicitly scornful judgment to an otherwise innocuous shot of packaged supermarket blueberries being placed in a fridge, for example.
But Jenkin’s film is not simplistic in its observation of tradition clashing with modernity, and the homemade battling the mass-produced. For every condescending comment from the unappealing Hugo, there’s a moment of flinty understanding from his mother or father. For every instance of stouthearted locals showing touching community solidarity against the interlopers, there’s another that outlines how small-town suspicion and hostility to change leads to stagnation and decline: Wenna’s scorn targets Katie’s plummy accent and the ragged local inn where she works in the same breath — “S—t pub anyways, innit?” is her frequent refrain. In the age of Brexit, this balance is crucial, lest the rustic charms of towns like this one be propagandized to serve a jingoistic, isolationist agenda. The engaging and defiantly hand-crafted, offbeat experiment “Bait” may be black and white, but its insights, thankfully, come in subtly graded shades of gray.