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Upon its release in 2019, Bait was highly acclaimed by critics as a timely film. Its story of simmering tensions between tourists and locals in a Cornish fishing community was considered opportune in the context of a country divided by Brexit, particularly given the film’s focus on the overwhelmingly Eurosceptic UK fishing industry. What makes Bait valuable for understanding Brexit, however, is precisely that it is not fixated on the 2016 referendum.
Brexit is pointedly side-lined, with the only explicit reference being a debate on the subject played in the background of a scene. In diminishing the Brexit debate to merely a background noise, Bait asserts that the referendum itself is not the issue: the forces which led to the result long pre-existed the vote, and, crucially, had been left unaddressed or denied. Bait instead depicts a sense of alienation which had been building for some time and culminated in the vote to leave the EU.
The film’s story is simple. Martin Ward (Edward Rowe) still plies his trade fishing (albeit without a boat) whilst his brother, Stephen (Giles King), has repurposed their former fishing vessel as a tourist boat, and their family home has been converted into a holiday retreat by the Leigh family. Shot silently in black and white, with dialogue dubbed in post-production, and a foreboding analogue synth score, Bait’s style has an ominous quality that conveys the spiralling tensions in the community and anticipates the tragic arc of the story.
Writer and director Mark Jenkin himself identified alienation as the central theme of the film in a BFI Q&A with film critic Mark Kermode. The term perfectly captures the displacement the locals feel as a result of the incoming tourist trade, as well as a sense of powerlessness in the face of the distant political and economic forces shaping their lives. Throughout the film, Martin is estranged from his own community. His family home now supports the tourist trade he loathes, with fishing equipment (which he suggests belonged to him) put up as chintzy decorations which evoke a romanticized conception of Cornish life that grates against the reality portrayed in the film. His car is later clamped simply for parking outside the house in order to go to work. Tense, clipped exchanges of dialogue convey a community ill at ease with itself, in which people are alienated from each other.
As Mark Kermode observed in his review for The Guardian, dubbing the sound gives the dialogue a “Pinteresque”, detached quality that reflects how people are “speaking in the same tongue yet failing to understand one another”. The idea of people failing to communicate is certainly one that resonates with the increasingly acrimonious debate surrounding Brexit, and the way the vote split the electorate 48-52 per cent. The point in Bait, however, is that narrowly examining the referendum blinds us to the long-term feelings of displacement and powerlessness which made a slogan like “take back control” resonate with so many.
The loss of control here seems not to be surrounding immigration—the main preoccupation of the Leave campaign. Instead, Bait portrays a loss of economic control that chimes with the Leave slogan. Martin’s continued fishing, an act of resistance against the encroaching tourism business, is turned against him as he is compelled by economic necessity to sell the fish to the local pub, where we later see London hipsters, complete with top knots, eating the fish Martin has caught. Yet the tourism industry which sporadically sustains the community is itself alien. Martin points out that “we don’t see a penny” from tourism, as the profits return to distant areas like London and the Maldives in the winter.
The community is thus dependent upon, and shaped by, distant forces that seem out of their control. Economic compulsion and constraint even shape the form of the film itself. In his Q&A session for BFI, Jenkin explained how moments of flashforwards were a consequence of the economical use of film. Jenkin used bits left over at the beginning and end of rolls to shoot snippets of future events and intercut them into earlier scenes. As a result, there are fragments of a character being handcuffed, a police car, and a character bleeding from the nose—all foreshadowing events that will take place later in the film. Characters’ fates thus appear delimited by the economic pressures of the film’s production, paralleling the economic constraints they face in the story.
The divisions and tensions which Bait portrays may have become clearly visible with the referendum, but they long predate it. Bait’s style expresses how these issues have been suppressed. The film’s black-and-white format, coupled with the spectral scratches which flicker across the screen as a result of Jenkin’s hand-processing technique, makes the movie appear like a lost artifact dredged up from the ocean, positioning the conflicts portrayed as something which has been repressed rather than acknowledged and dealt with.
There is another form of alienation here—that of the failure for the societal divisions present in Bait to be acknowledged and addressed. The film is, then, really a riposte to the “classless society” of the 1990s and 2000s which allowed these tensions to fester as political parties proclaimed an end to class divisions whilst drastically exacerbating inequalities.
In contrast to Tony Blair’s assertion that the “class war is over”, Bait is replete with class division. The sparse dialogue and foreboding score register a swelling undercurrent of resentment that is now rising to the surface and is all the stronger for the failure to even acknowledge the existence of such divisions. Indeed, Bait, as a film which Jenkin conceived in 1999 and subsequently went through a twenty-year gestation to its release in 2019, has almost grown up with the shift from New Labour to Tory austerity and finally national populism.
The film’s foregrounding of acts of labour is a direct response to the failure to represent people like Martin. Close-up shots of fixing lobster pots and laying nets thrust the material reality of labour and class division into the faces of the audience, asserting their existence in the face of marginalisation. The commitment to making visible those alienated under the “classless society” is baked into Bait itself. The scratches and patterns which flicker on-screen are traces of the hand-processing technique that produced the film. Fibres from Jenkin’s jumper and even pollen found their way into the emulsion, providing glimpses of the work that went into producing the film.
Bait is not an endorsement of Brexit. Indeed, the absence of the event from the film seems to suggest how little it will do to change the lives of the alienated, marginalised and precarious. The populist surge of which Brexit was a part has sought to stoke divisions based on xenophobia. What Bait recognises, however, is that Brexit is the culmination of a long process of disenfranchisement and neglect that exacerbated anger and resentment.
This is not to deny that anti-immigration sentiment played a significant part in the referendum campaign, but it is to say that meanings and motivations are more complex than they first appear. The national populist surge of which the Leave campaign was a part is a distorted echo of class politics, tying a recognition of deprivation and inequality to a xenophobic racism that should be considered the antithesis of class solidarity. The film does not suggest that leaving the EU will solve any of these issues but understanding the disaffection which brought us here is the first step towards radical change.