Class conflict, and the various ways class divisions are expressed and resolved in personal relationships, from outright violence to affection and peaceful co-existence, form the central themes of this outstandingly original new film, written and directed by Mark Jenkin. Set in a Cornish fishing village, the story is about the clash between well-off incomers and the local precariat – working families struggling to make a living.
It’s modern Britain writ small, where fundamental economic inequality generates mutual incomprehension, resentment, and an angry sense of betrayal brought on by the loss of proper work and decent housing. Ring any bells with what you’ve just heard on the radio?
The story is rooted in Jenkin’s experience of dispossessed working-class communities, scarred by unemployment, poverty, and social exclusion. A well-off London family has bought and gentrified ‘Skipper’s Cottage’, one of the harbourside cottages. They’ve installed a porthole as a window, filled the fridge with prosecco and pasta, bedecked the rooms with fishing buoys and nets, and rented out the net-loft to tourists who complain at the early morning noise of the fishing boats. The family is itself divided – thoughtful mother, smug father, flirtatious daughter, and boorish son.
The former inhabitant of the cottage is an impoverished fisherman who can’t afford to buy a boat. He lays nets on the beach outside the house to catch a few fish (bait), which he sells to the local pub for a high price, but gives to local families on the estate he now lives on. Throughout the film he simmers with barely contained rage at his inability to make a living any more from fishing, provoking (baiting) the rich incomers. ‘You didn’t have to sell us this house’, they tell him: ‘Didn’t I?’ is his sarcastic response.
His family is also divided. His brother still has a boat, though it’s used not for fishing but for coastal cruise trips for drunken tourists. But his brother’s son won’t work on the cruise boat, preferring to struggle like his uncle with the beach nets, and form a liaison with the rich family’s daughter.
These characters hit, miss and crash into each other in their houses, on the harbour and in the pub. Collaboration, confrontation, violence, and a tragic accident is the shocking outcome. A symbolic and yet also grittily realistic class struggle is played out in the film, in a nuanced, understated yet very powerful way.
None of the characters are happy in their own skin, except perhaps the daughter, who both symbolically and literally embraces both sides of this unhappy, class-divided community. A niggling, aggressive unhappiness and resentment pervades all the other characters, just like the shouting and discontent you’ve just heard on the TV news.
This story of alienation and anger is not told in the usual, straightforward narrative arcs of social realism employed by Ken Loach or Mike Leigh. Its art owes more to Bertolt Brecht, the great socialist theatre-maker and poet. In order to clearly express his critique of the inhuman nature of capitalist society, and avoid the way living under capitalism taints the experience of artworks, Brecht developed various techniques which are used to great effect in Bait.
Just as Brecht always foregrounded the theatricality of his plays, Jenkin never lets us forget we’re watching a film. Visually, the film was made with hand-cranked cameras, like silent movies were made, then hand-processed into scratchy, lined images which are almost tactile in their materiality.
Aurally, the soundscape of the film stands out in a similar way. The dialogue has been recorded and dubbed onto the film, giving the uncomprehending, Pinteresque conversations an eerie atmosphere of alienation. Between the conversations there are hypnotic, rhythmic sounds, an underlying thump, thump – sometimes like the sea on the harbour wall, or the engines of the boats, or the wind, or the persistent tick of a clock. The effect of the sound design is both disturbing and reassuring, enhancing the tensions of the unfolding story.
The editing has a similarly disorienting and disturbing effect. The point of view switches from landscape or group shots to macro close-ups, taking us out of the story being told and into material reality. It can linger on objects, but also often moves violently fast between the characters’ clipped and sometimes comic exchanges, so that separate conversations appear to be in some kind of weird, surreal conversation of their own. Occasionally shots of scenes are shown in advance of their chronological place in the plot.
And finally, the ending of this amazing film is edited in a deliberately low-key, undramatic and workaday way. Does the ending give hope? Yes and no. We’re not a happy country, but we might be if we worked equally together. What do you want?
I don’t know what you want, but I do know that if you go to see this film, you will be prevented from suspending your disbelief and getting pleasure from immersing yourselves in an entertaining story. Instead, just like Brecht, Jenkin insists that you understand the issues at the heart of the film, and not be a passive consumer of a piece of entertainment. So in a sense the film itself is bait – for you.
All these ‘distancing’ techniques work together to express the alienation, conflicts and collaborations in modern British class-divided society. The Cornish fishing village is a microcosm of post-industrial, post-referendum life today all over this country, where the dispossessed many confront the privileged few. You won’t see a better film this year about what you’ve just heard on the radio, seen on the telly, and read in the newspapers.
Mike Quille is a writer, reviewer and chief editor of Culture Matters.