Film

The Ghostliness of Mark Jenkin's  Post-Brexit Parable, 'Bait'

Isaac Woodvine as Neil Ward in Bait (2019) (© Early Day Films / IMDB)

Mark Jenkin's haunting Bait exhibits a ghostliness that complements the film's transient landscape of seasonal capital and short-term holiday lets.

Bait
Mark Jenkin

BFI

20 January 2020

Other

Despite its sense of knobbly tactility, Mark Jenkin's Bait (2019) is a ghost story. Regarded as a 'genuine modern masterpiece', (Kermode) (Bait would go on to win the BAFTA for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer) Jenkin's post-Brexit parable partakes of a kind of phantasmatic uneasiness, owing as much to the silent fantasies of George Méliès as to recent releases by Jennifer Kent (The Nightingale, 2018) and Robert Eggers (The Lighthouse, 2019). Now available on DVD/Blu-Ray and streaming services, there is no better time to revisit one of the more quietly arresting releases of 2019.

However, Bait is by no means a horror in the traditional sense. Jenkin's gritty, 'no fuss' approach to filmmaking (enshrined in 'Silent Landscape Dancing Grain 13 Film Manifesto', which can be viewed here), on the face of it, side-steps the kind of flagrant unreality that one might typically expect of the genre. A zero-budget, 'primitivist' endeavour, Bait would be shot using a hand-cranked Bolex camera, on 16mm black and white film developed during long sittings by the director himself. This is proudly hand-made cinema, in and of the world; an ethos upheld in much of Jenkin's filmography, whether it's the couple's search for stable housing in 2015's Bronco's House (2015)or the strained relationship between parents and children in the 2007 feature, The Midnight Drives.

Similarly, Bait is wedded to the concrete immediacy of its story. Telling the tale of displaced Cornish fisherman Martin Ward—played by a convincingly abrasive Edward Rowe—the film (like many of Jenkin's works), is immersed in the political and social tensions of the director's native Cornwall. Set across a number of locations in an unnamed fishing village, Bait is drenched in the recognisable damp of its coastal milieu. Imperfections in the film stock splash across the screen like ocean spray.

Meanwhile, the analogue synth score (performed by Jenkin) glides along with the tides, mixing gentle washes with rippling burps of distortion. In the words of Ian Mantgani, writing for Sight & Sound, it is a film that 'feels pounded into existence by hand, or possibly belched up by an angry sea.'

Over a modest 89-minute run-time, the veil of the everyday is peeled back to reveal the tortured inner space of its protagonist. Ward, the viewer learns, is a man at risk of disappearance—defending his family's fishing heritage before the twin incursions of tourism and poverty. Every morning, he solemnly sets out his nets across the beach, snagging a paltry amount of fish that he duly sells to friends and neighbours. Pacing restlessly throughout the film, Rowe's performance is, by turns, furious and understated: conveying a driving sense of resentment, at risk of erupting through the claustrophobic close-ups of Jenkin's camerawork.

Edward Rowe as Martin Ward and Isaac Woodvine as Neil Ward (© Early Day Films / IMDB)

At the same time, Bait doubles as a sensitive portrayal of familial and inter-generational tension. This is revealed through the actions of Martin's brother, Steven (Giles King), whose decision to use the family boat to offer 'coastal cruises' to incoming revellers contrasts with the self-imposed austerity of Martin's operation. Martin is saving the little money that he earns in the hope of purchasing a vessel of his own. Dispossessed, a fisherman without a boat, he is assisted by his teenage nephew (played by a spectacularly telegenic Isaac Woodvine), whose energies are divided between the perceived honesty of his uncle's vocation, and his attraction to the young female holiday-makers that descend on the village every summer.

As such, (and despite the 20-year genesis of its narrative), the disaffiliated 'locals' and perpetually disconnected tourist-class of Bait, inevitably chimes with the cultural conflict of Brexit Britain, and its endlessly reduplicated tales of liberal metropolitan elites and the post-industrial 'left behind.' And yet, Jenkin rarely deals in readymade caricature; nor does the film indulge in the kind of political invective of Ken Loach at his most didactic. Rather, Jenkin allows the specificity of the story to take care of itself.

The Wards have been forced to sell their family home to a well-to-do London family. The buyers have the house 'modernised' for their glitzy harbour-side retreat. With perfectly pitched performances by Simon Shepherd, Mary Woodvine, Jowan Jacobs and Georgia Ellery as the Leigh family, Jenkin expertly evokes the (classically British) displacement of deep-seated structural tension in acts of seeming mundanity—a scuffle over the pool table, a car parked on a private road…

In each case, the insinuation of what is unsaid only serves to reinforce the stinging impact of what is said. With an effect that Mark Kermode describes as 'Pinteresque', Jenkin's decision to post-sync character dialogue conjures a deliberately uncanny sonic experience, as if broadcast from the bottom of some unfathomable ocean. Debuted in Bronco's House, the extensive use of ADR often results in a kind of mesmeric humour, recalling Werner Herzog's allegedly hypnotised cast in 1976's Heart of Glass.

'They're probably mine,' Ward deadpans in a black-comic turn, observing the fishing equipment that festoons the walls of the Leigh family's cottage (in fact, a chintzy reproduction purchased from Amazon). Where tourism does not entirely erase local history, it supplies its own kitschy substitute, enshrined in images and symbols that seem to acquire a life of their own.

Edward Rowe as Martin Ward (trailer screengrab)

The net result is something unshakeably spectral—a ghostliness that ideally complements the film's transient landscape of seasonal capital and short-term holiday lets. Veering between kitchen-sink realism and something altogether more peculiar, Jenkin touches upon this disquieting blend in conversation with Film Comment magazine. From the dreamy score, to the shadowy monochrome (giving the entire film a feeling of lamp-lit drowsiness), Bait seems to crystallise a unique affective style, described by Jenkin as 'horror films without any horror'. It is perhaps telling that the director's next project (due to begin shooting in May this year) has been identified, explicitly, as a horror picture—like Bait, directed from Jenkin's script and located deep within the Cornish landscape.

As an oblique companion piece, one might give a nod to Egger's The Lighthouse: itself a black and white tale of oceanic emotions, in which paranoia and claustrophobia are perversely offset against the limitless expanse of the sea. (On the 3rd February, the two films were screened as a double-bill at the BFI Southbank, with an introduction by Mark Jenkin.) Given the current political fixation with the inviolability of the border, it is perhaps to be expected that artists are drawn outwards, to both the frightening otherness and the blissful anonymity of the ocean.

However, where Egger's film spirals into increasingly vaudeville contortions, Bait stages a climax of almost unbearable silence. It is only by the film's concluding moments that the viewer is left to reckon with the explicitly ghostly nature of Ward's narrative, and the manner in which the ghosts of the past persist within the fissures of the present.

Works Cited

Kermode, Mark. "Bait review – one of the defining British films of the decade". The Guardian. 1 September 2019.

Lizotte, Chloe. "Interview: Mark Jenkin". Film Comment. 27 March 2019.

Mantgani, Ian. "Bait first look: Mark Jenkin heralds the new weird Britain". Sight & Sound, via BFI. 30 August 2019.

Parfitt, Orlando. "'Bait' director Mark Jenkin sets Cornish horror 'Enys Men' with Film4". Screen Daily. 17 January 2020.

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