WHAT I LIKED: 'Bait,' is basically a film about the gentrification of a small Cornish fishing village and the effects of that on its characters, but what makes it so captivating first of all is just how unbelievably cinematic it is.
That quality largely comes from the fact that first-time director Mark Jenkin has such incredible control over the way he leaves his camera to make each and every reveal in the narrative; keeping you brilliantly on tenterhooks throughout.
Take the opening scene as an example. We watch the central character Martin (Edward Rowe) fishing on the beach whilst Jenkin zooms in on his nets, the use of his hands, and his withered, suspicious face. He then cuts to an expensive alloy wheel pulling in, back to Martin, then zooms out to see a Range Rover, back to Martin, then to a frightfully middle-class family getting out and unloading their stuff into their seaside cottage's fridge. He's deliberately cross-cutting a-la 'The Great Train Robbery,' quickly like one might in a horror film; but here the fact it's between a hard-working local labourer and an old white woman with a bottle of champagne is utterly genius. In that brief sequence we're told everything we need to know - there's a tension suggested by the deliberate, almost amusing subversion of a classic cinematic trope, but there's also a deeper tension of class disparity shown as clear as day without a word of discussion between the characters.
That kind of handle on cinematic craft is shown throughout the film. Jenkin goes back to the genius tension-based cross-cutting time and time again, and he also randomly shows short sequences that intially confuse (and add an element of surrealism) but eventually foreshadow later events, and once we realise that's another technique he's using, we begin to piece together the dots. He's basically teasing the audience with his camera the entire time, and that has the atmospheric effect of keeping your eyes utterly hooked on the screen like only the best directors can manage.
But there's much more to the film than the arrangement of its moments to keep you engaged, as the moments themselves all help to build a set of well-rounded characters, as well as a world with its own set of topical, thought-provoking thematic issues at play.
Indeed, on the one hand, everyone in it feels like a real human being. Martin is reluctant to embrace change and has an intense, bubbling hatred for the rich tourists who flock to the town for a few months a year and then leave, and we feel for him the more we learn about his history and his family; including his brother (Giles King) who has reluctantly turned his fishing boat into a tourist sea cruise. We really get a sense of what it's like for the local people living on the poverty line, and that's helped to life by the way Jenkin shoots the village on black and white film; often staying at the middle-distance to observe their lives and surroundings, then deliberately cutting to close up when he has something more subjective to convey.
But the tourists themselves also get some development. The daughter of the main Leigh family (Georgia Ellery) enters into a summer fling with Martin's niece, and that adds to the rising tension between the four of them that escalated further when Martin begins to actually confront them.
It's then that conflict at the centre of the chracter drama (along with Jenkin's provocative cross-cutting) that brings up the whole gentrification question, and that elevates the film even further into something highly thought-provoking. Initially, Martin seems to be unjustifiably cold towards the Leigh family, but as we see the aforementioned poverty and the effects their presence is having on local prices and his industry, it becomes clear what the problem is. The question of what can be done about it, whether development is neccessary - and indeed whether it's possible without leaving those in traditional lines of work behind - is thankfully never directly addressed, debated or answered by the narrative's conclusions. It's just the situations at play that make you think about it all, and you're likely to come away thinking about it for a good while after as a result.
All in all then, whilst some reviews have hinted at the fact it's somehow a 'pretentious,' or 'arthouse,' film, I would highly disagree. It's an honest, thought-provoking film that uses classic cinematic techniques to very directly build its atmosphere, characters and themes. In other words, for want of a better analogy, it's not prog-rock; it's folk cinema, and I'm here for it.
WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE: Perhaps you could have trimmed it down a bit, as some of the scenes do do that thing of making points that's already been made and felt perfectly well already.
VERDICT: Its atmospheric, cinematic quality that keeps you on tenterhooks, its development of layered characters, and its use of their situations to provoke some real thematic questions all makes Mark Jenkin's 'Bait,' a film that fires on every possible cylinder. It truly is one of the greatest films of recent years.