Spoilers ahoy – so not that ambiguous – but you may want to come back after you’ve watched it… (My review is here.)
As a title, Bait works in several ways: fishing bait, as a metaphor to entice, and bait meaning to provoke.
Martin the fisherman deliberately goads the incomers, while they as a group are provoking locals, and on an individual level being thoughtlessly provocative too: wealthy Londoners Tim and Sandra fill their cottage, which used to belong to Martin’s parents, with fake nautical tat.
Tim and Sandra’s teenage son Hugo, too, baits others – he’s the annoying little kid desperate to be noticed and to be the big man, but his deliberate actions have tragic consequences. There’s also the artfully constructed fake fishing village lifestyle Tim and Sandra use to bait would-be holidaymakers in the converted sail loft, now and AirB&B property. (If, like me, you’re from the north east, where bait means something else entirely, you may well have approached this film expecting it to be a paean to the packed lunch.)
Bait is best known for its old-style look: filmed on a hand-cranked 16mm Bolex camera using vintage Kodak film, and hand-processed to produce those crackles.
There are long pauses and close-up shots of faces, of clenched fists, and fisherman’s boots. It’s new-as-old movie making as we watch gentrification on the black and white fizzing and popping film, a twist on what the incomers are doing to the Cornish fishing village where it’s set.
There’s also a certain amount of time-hopping, with sudden flashes of events past or yet to come.
The final scene is actually one of the first scenes too: at the end of the film, Martin, his brother Steven and local barmaid Wenna go out in Steven’s fishing boat with their lobster pots. Tragedy has sent Steven back to fishing, after using their dad’s fishing boat for sea tours for holidaymakers.
At the start of the film, we have that scene too, followed by an intertitle card stating BEFORE. It’s a sign that life goes on in cycles that we have to examine to work out the good and the bad, to keep life on track. The world changes, but at what point do we say the negatives outweigh the positives, and who gets to make that decision?
Soon after (we’re still at the beginning of the movie here) as Martin goes down to the beach to sort out his net and anchor it to the pebbly beach, we see two figures looking down from the quay at him: it’s Steven’s son Neil, and an old fisherman (who also appears later on).
These two are ghosts, though if you watched the film and that passed you by I can tell you I only know because Mark Jenkin told me about them in our interview and I then rewatched it. This, though, appears to happen after the BEFORE card, if that makes sense, at a point in the film when Neil is still alive (assuming the bulk of the story is unfolding chronologically).
It’s a jump ahead (or back, as Bait starts at the end!) that ties into the time-hopping, and blink-and-you-miss-them flashes forward. Still, what do the future and the past mean in a place like this? Incomers want to preserve the village as a time capsule of adorable yet authentic Cornish life; locals like Martin want to retain their old ways and industries but certainly don’t want a village pickled in aspic.
Bait is an ambiguous story that highlights what is going on – on a wider and narrower scale – without claiming all change in this Cornish village is terrible, or all to the good. That said I was never going to like the odious Tim or his mini-me son, the childish, snobbish Hugo.
Sandra, Tim’s wife, is more self-aware; Martin not remotely, though while he’s often unlikeable, and his own worst enemy, he’s also a sympathetic character and a victim.
Hugo’s actions – stealing Martin’s lobsters when the fisherman is desperately trying to get back on his feet – aren’t really the catalyst for the great personal tragedy of the film (for more on what that tragedy is, see below) though they reinforce his childish vindictiveness and impulsiveness, traits which directly cause that tragedy.
Three locations are then intercut, in a powerful and jarring showcase of the village’s tensions. Martin’s nephew Neil and Hugo’s sister Katie, their new relationship blossoming, are cooking pasta together in Steven’s council house. Tim and Sandra are cooking their stolen lobster and drinking white wine in their cottage. Hugo is drinking in the pub with his posh friends when Martin comes in with the empty lobster pot, brandishing a knife, and makes Hugo mend it in front of everyone.
After dinner, while Tim sits in their cosy cottage drinking, Sandra goes to Martin’s house and lets herself in. She finds Martin’s Boat money tin and counts out £100 to add to it, to pay for the stolen lobsters, and maybe also to disentangle herself from a general feeling of endebtedness to Martin and the locals.
Martin is down by the sea, putting the lobster pots out. He goes to Steven’s house and tells Neil he’s buying a small boat and Neil is going to be the crew. Neil has to be on the quay at first light to sort pots. Martin then goes to see Steven cleaning his boat of beer cans after a stag trip. They bicker about fishing, the boat, their dad. It’s the same squabbling they’ve done before. Martin goes home and checks his tin, finding a folded-up wedge of twenties that wasn’t there before.
At first light Hugo comes down and starts pushing lobster pots to the edge of the quay. (I’m not sure why – to push them into the sea and further destroy Martin’s livelihood? To “help”? To annoy?) Neil – who has slept in Martin’s stone shed on the quayside overnight – wakes up and comes to the door. Katie is behind him wrapped in a quilt. They ask Hugo what he’s doing, and he tells her he’ll tell their mum she’s seeing Neil and that she’s disgusting. Katie calls him a little boy. It’s the working class Neil who suffers in this brief spat between wealthy siblings though.
Hugo grabs Neil by the neck; Neil goes as if to punch him then is half-pushed by Hugo, and half-stumbles, off the edge of the quay, falling into his dad’s boat below. He lies there dead, eyes open, blood pouring from his head.
Martin wakes up on the beach, having stayed the night to protect his catch. Presumably it’s some days later. He takes his equipment and the fish to his stone shed on the quay. While he’s sorting his lobster pots it looks as if there’s a dark haired human head in one. Is it because he wants to kill Hugo or is it meant to represent Neil? Martin goes inside and puts some of the fish in the freezer and some in bags to take round to his customers.
Steven is standing silent in his house as Martin looks in through the letterbox.
Steven kicks his way into Tim and Sandra’s cottage. Martin sees what’s happening and goes in behind him. His brother stares at a photo of Hugo and Katie as small children, picks up the pestle from a pestle and mortar on the table, and smashes the glass porthole with it. The ghostly fisherman walks past the broken glass on the outside. “They knocked mother’s pantry down” a bereft Steven says to Martin, who hugs him.
They both go out in Steven’s fishing boat with Wenna, a repeat of the first scenes. An image of Neil flashes up.
Bait is showing on Film4 on 17 September 2020 at 11.20pm. It’s also available on blu-ray and on digital:
Read my review of Bait and my interview with writer-director Mark Jenkin.