Mark Jenkin’s Bait (2019) rouses the sleeping giant of class-consciousness – in a quaint Cornish cove

Cinematekene er et samarbeid om felles digitale visninger på cinematekene i Bergen, Kristiansand, Lillehammer, Oslo, Stavanger, Tromsø og Trondheim. Montages setter gjennom ukentlige artikler fokus på filmene i utvalget. Festivalfavoritten Bait (2019) vises på cinematekene i mange byer i juni – mer info finnes her, eller sjekk oversikten hos ditt cinematek.


The class struggle is alive and kicking. So grab your nets and pool-cues and take it to the quayside. Yes, the quayside, be it Cornwall or Norway, or wherever the tourist ‘industry’ is – or was – flourishing. The global industrial slowdown channels capital into real estate where it dovetails perfectly with tourism – or it did. Hence, the chain-hotels and souvenir stands have spread like carbuncles from Stavanger to Kirkenes. They stifle local industry to cater to pure acquisition – of experiences. Mark Jenkin’s Bait (2019) pulls back the commercial façade to provide another sort of experience, one you won’t find in any tourist brochure or its cousin, the feel-good movie.

Of the many weapons in the ruling-class armoury, there is perhaps none more potent – or infuriating – than private parking. Local fisherman Martin, struggling to eke out a living on the shore, is an early casualty. Already boatless, now his truck is taken hostage – clamped – by the security company policing the quayside at its masters’ behest. Our ‘betters’ are, as always, armed to the teeth with title deeds and other ‘objective’ legal instruments, and surely destined to triumph, pandemic setbacks notwithstanding. And yet they will never quite extinguish the sheer bloody-minded defiance of the long suffering but never vanquished. Resistance starts here, on the briny shore, with what amounts to a new ‘kitchen sink’ master-class in glorious 16 mm.

A flash of a wheel-clamp, a strike of the timpani, the hard-nosed fisherman in close-up, his resolute stride down to the quayside: Somewhere between the kitchen-sink realism of 60s British New Wave and the stylised melodrama of the silent-era classic, Bait manages to defy expectations at every turn. With each unnerving close-up, detail or quasi-ambient acoustic punctuation, it strives to tell the story its way or, more precisely, their way. They are the ordinary – yet extraordinary – denizens of a remote Cornish cove, struggling with the age-old vicissitudes of colonial rule. The film begins, as it will continue, with an ominous portent of things to come, heralding its story proper with the simple word ‘Before’…

Fishermen Martin and Steven have fallen on hard times. Steven uses their only boat to hawk pleasure cruises. His brother Martin prefers to resist the tyranny of the tourist trade, trawling for fish or lobster on the seashore without the benefit of a vessel. The family home has been sold to newcomers who, in a kind of grotesque parody, fill it with all manner of kitsch, maritime bric-a-brac, including a faux porthole. Meanwhile, the simple token of Martin’s grief, as well as the pathos of his hope, is a biscuit-tin labelled ‘Boat,’ to be filled with the meagre takings of the day’s improvised catch.

The wonder of a truly extraordinary film can only be expressed in that time-honoured cliché ‘words fail me.’ It cuts you adrift from pat formulas and predictable plotlines (excuse the maritime metaphor). It’s a liberating experience but hard to describe. Mechanisms of visual storytelling operate in a way to confound expectations and so engage the spectator directly – bodily. The interlocutor must attempt, above all, to convey how it felt, and this is no simple reaction borne of classic cinematic manipulation, but rather a subtle and contradictory emotional register. The response having been generated by such unconventional means, it is also tricky to pinpoint exactly how you came to feel this way.

Bait at any rate strikes a unique resonance with the history of filmmaking, evoking certain cues and affectations to complex effect. The lingering over details, sauce pouring down onto pasta, for example, is redolent not only of the gritty, everyday realism of observational cinema but also the faux gravitas of heavy-handed visual symbolism. Anyone who has ever digested the empty dramatic figures and ironical homages of that master of quirkiness, Guy Maddin, will sense a little of the Canadian filmmaker’s spirit in this film.

Much like Maddin’s inscrutable masterpiece, Keyhole (2011), its effect – or affect – is to continually unnerve the viewer in a way that demands a reaction, a release of tension of some kind. This could be nervous laughter or a welling of dread – or both. This makes the film impossible to describe in generic terms or even those of identifiable and consistent tone. Its register, its timbre, is certainly too complex to be placed in the conventional categories of the comic or tragic.

A good example of the film’s capacity to disorientate and unnerve is the repeated use of the temporal jump or foreshadowing. In the midst of tensions over Martin’s wheel-clamped truck, for example, a portent of coming law-enforcement measures – handcuffs – flashes before our eyes just as the conflict seems about to escalate unpredictably. Strangely enough, the dramatic tension of the moment is actually heightened by the momentary slippage of focus to its broader temporal connections.

Any attempt to describe how the film works risks exaggerating its stylisation and hence the cerebral dimension of the experience. For that experience is nothing if not visceral, physical, embodied. Indeed, a strangely material evocation of place is the most powerful impression the film leaves on the observer. This is only enhanced, paradoxically, by the prominence of the film stock’s own flawed materiality. You can practically smell the seashore, with just a hint of celluloid wrapping: the salt, the fish, the grime, the piss.

This is more than a new wave conceit, however. It is a decidedly politicised realism, which resonates, perhaps self-consciously, with the work of the British new wave of ‘kitchen sink’ dramas in the 1950s and 60s. These told everyday working-class stories, populated with working-class anti-heroes, and meant for the edification of working-class people themselves: Room at the Top (Jack Clayton, 1959), Look Back in Anger (Tony Richardson, 1959) and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (Richardson again, 1962), to name a few.

If the point were simply to expose us to what it’s like to ‘be there’ for the sake of the local colour (here portrayed in glorious black and white), this would reduce the film to an exercise in virtual tourism: a scenic tour of quaint, rustic dwellings, with their equally quaint and rustic inhabitants, on the margins of the Disunited Kingdom. As viewers, we would ourselves be analogues of the colonial powers, in this case the bourgeois family who occupy the quayside, who buy it up, lock, stock and barrel, impose their rules, and just squat there, monopolising what remains of the public sphere in a conspicuous orgy of self-gratification.

Bait is no The Full Monty (Peter Cattaneo, 1997), however, no heart-warming PR fairytale for the benefit of the regional tourist industry. In any case, as Martin puts it so elegantly, ‘There i’n’t no industry. We don’t see a penny… You fuckers bring everything down with you and take it home again!’ Rather, the film offers the viewpoint we rarely see, of the dispossessed not the prepossessed. It provides an almost tactile feel for a place and its predicament, a pungent whiff of ‘what is to be a slave’ – to quote an immortal line from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). We are invited to share their loss, their disenfranchisement, and their profound disenchantment. We are able to do so insofar as we in some small way share their fate, and feel their suffering as ours. This kind of sharing forms the embodied building-blocks of class solidarity and the political core of many a great drama, from Ken Loach’s Kes (1969) to Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party (1977).

A small, incidental metaphor the film employs, and the associated embodied practice evoked, is worth closer examination in this regard. The pub pool-table and the institution of ‘winner stays on’ play a deceptively significant role. The pool dispute occupies the background only, a distraction at worst, a descant at best, as an evidently more important argument and conflict emerges in classic divide-and-conquer style between Martin and the publican. Later, at the height of the drama, we are surprised to learn that Martin had been following the pool dispute rather closely. As if closing the pub for the winter wasn’t bad enough! ‘It’s not even winner stays on any more!’ It may not seem much, but it illustrates that even the smallest, most trivial institutions wilt before the tyranny of property and wealth.

The table’s incumbents had refused to make way, as custom required, for the local challenger, because these ‘tourists’ had a more serious game, involving serious money, to prioritise. Hence, they simply invoked and imposed a sort of natural privilege of self-importance and wealth. ‘Winner stays on’ represents a powerful metaphor for capitalism’s own self-legitimising myth of meritocracy. Its blatant corruption, trivial or otherwise, is a striking illustration of the hollowness of that myth.

‘Winner stays on’ is more than this though. As much as the boats, streets and dwellings so readily re-appropriated, this too is part of the social landscape. The memory of a fishing boat and associated grief is no more important than the memory of repeated customs and rituals shared by the community. Such is the raw material of anger and resistance. The film invokes them. In this way, it represents not so much a depiction of class struggle as a call to arms.

True radicalism resides, at bottom, in the spontaneous beauty of people’s lives. There are many examples portrayed in the film: the communal trust underpinning self-served beer and money left on the counter, the embodied humanism of fair trade as opposed to ‘free trade:’ assessing what the sea bass is really worth, in a transaction rooted in mutual respect and understanding – never mind the ‘market value.’ Such incidental ‘senseless acts of beauty’* not only comprise the political core of the film but also its governing aesthetic and its enduring charm. Here lies the radicalism and the poetry of Bait in one beautiful and unassailable package.

The beauty is heightened in its juxtaposition and contrast with what is considerably less so: the ruling classes in spandex or snorkel; the nit-picking rules, in all their spurious impartiality and objectivity, on which they rely. The morbid and grotesque in Bait leave a lasting impression, like an unpleasant aftertaste. The striking paradox of colonisation is the way it feeds in ironic deference on the local culture, creating an absurdist cavalcade at once comic and horrific: comic in its tastelessness, horrific in the destruction it wreaks. This is the source of the film’s powerful atmosphere of disquiet and brooding menace. It has no need of the customary clichés, so we are spared the stormy seas or any other cheap (yet expensive) meteorological metaphors. Here, it seems, budgetary and aesthetic considerations work in perfect harmony.

The making of Bait was nonetheless no mean feat. It strikes a delicate balance. We may see a little of ourselves in Martin but also I fear in his Lycra clad nemesis. We feel the urge to travel yet nobody loves a tourist (least of all tourists themselves), nor, in most cases, the tourist’s close associate, the conqueror. The film calls on us to love our better selves and reject the assumed identities that fail to do us justice. Mature capitalism has made wage slaves of us all – and made us a wee bit bourgeois into the bargain – but no less slaves for all that.

The mournfulness of a hard, oppressive existence, replete with disdain and injustice, fills the grainy images and sparse soundscape of Bait. There is a little bit of Kes here. For all that, there is human resilience – and defiance – too. There’s more than a little Look Back in Anger (1959) or The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1962). The fine balance struck between necessary resignation and the urge to rebel is reflected in a deceptively evocative title. Most immediately, in its substantive form, it suggests the lure, what the predator makes deceptively attractive to its prey’s infinite cost. A little less obvious, but absolutely critical, is the verbal form, where the sense is rather to provoke and antagonise. There are plenty of fish in this movie but there’s also a bear, the wounded bear known as Martin. Everyone knows you can safely catch a fish by leaving it the right bait. Mark Jenkin has provided a striking reminder that bear baiting, on the other hand, is one very dangerous game!

Pretty much wherever we are, on sea or shore, they will come and bait us, but we will just as surely give them a pretty good baiting in return. It has been this way for just as long as anyone can remember and I daresay the future will be no different, for there will always be a bear like Martin, who will never surrender. Winner stays on!

* The phrase is taken from George McKay’s classic study of counter-culture and resistance, «Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance since the Sixties» (1996).


P. Stuart Robinson (b. 1958) is an Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Tromsø. He is a regular contributor on cultural events for Tromsø’s net publication, Tromsø by.

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