Friday, December 20, 2019

Fisherman's Friends vs Bait

Fisherman's Friends (Chris Foggin, 2019)
Bait (Mark Jenkin, 2019)
Also: Tin (Bill Scott, 2015)

You wait years for a film about bloody Londoners ruining Cornish fishing villages then two come along within months of each other. Fisherman's Friends and Bait are two sides of the same coin, portraying the effect of tourism and second home owners in Cornwall, one of the poorest parts of Europe, in very different ways.

Fisherman's Friends is partly based on the real life sea shanty group of the same name, based in Port Issac, a fishing village in North Cornwall. Pretty sentimental, it follows the familiar trope of British films of its ilk, from The Full Monty to Brassed Off without those films' originality, humour or warmth. Nevertheless, it has its moments, as it follows cocky London A&R music scout Danny (Daniel Mays), to Cornwall with some colleagues (one of who is the smarmy Henry – all the Londoner's are smarmy – played by Christian Brassington, no stranger to Cornwall, having played the hypocritical and hideous Reverend Osborne 'Ossie' Whitworth in Poldark. Brassington has also played similar roles in his depictions of both Boris Johnson and Tony Blair) for a stag do. They stumble across a performance by the Fisherman's Friends, a group of male fishermen/coastguards who, in between catching fish and saving stupid tourists' lives, sing sea shanties on the sea shore. As a wind up, Danny's boss tells him he has to sign the boy band – and drive off, leaving him high and dry.

At first, Danny is just staying on in the hope of shagging a fisherman's daughter, in the form of Alwyn (Tuppence Middleton), before he succumbs to the authenticity of the Fisherman's Friends and the charms of the fishing village. Anyway, despite the wind up, Danny signs the band and gets the record contract. And the girl. Oh, and buys the local pub.

Despite occasional digs at Londoner's and second home owners, and as you might be surmising by now, a film supposedly about a sea shanty band and Cornwall is actually more about Danny, a London 'tosser' (Alwyn's daughter's words), and his journey to finding fulfilment (that's because the Cornish have already found theirs, quipped H).

This fact was mentioned, actually, when we heard director Mark Jenkin give a talk after a screening of his film Bait, called "one of the defining British films of the decade" by the Guardian. Stylistically, it is world's apart from Fisherman's Friends (filmed with all the imagination of a BBC drama), shot as it was on 16mm black and white film on a Bolex camera (which I used at film school in the 1990s, already obsolete then – it's a loud, hand-cranked camera and can only shoot a few minutes of film at a time, but it is durable – on one film shoot the camera fell in a river; when we pulled it out it was absolutely fine). Jenkin's decision to film this way, as well as to hand develop the film and record all the dialogue post-production certainly helps give the film its unique look (and goes some way to explaining the lavish praise heaped upon it from the likes of the BFI – well, they funded it – and the Guardian).

The slight plot revolves around fisherman Martin Ward (Edward Rowe, a.k.a. the Kernow King and general Cornish Renaissance Man), eking out a living as a fisherman and struggling to save money for a fishing boat, whilst his brother makes money hiring out their late father's fishing boat to tourists wanting to party. To add insult to injury, they've sold the family's harbourside house to poncy Londoner's who use it as a second home. The seeds are sown for seething resentment, and the film is an intense experience, with its high contrast black and white expressionist cinematography, extreme close-ups and contemptuous glances between the social classes.

The film isn't perfect – characters are slightly cardboard cut-out and it's a little simplistic – but there's no denying it's a stunningly original work, and a breath of fresh air compared to the usual Cornish fare of Poldark and Doc Martin.

Fisherman''s Friends and Bait make an obvious double bill but how about Bait and The Lighthouse, with Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe playing 19th century lighthouse keepers in Robert Egger's black and white psychological horror, released in the UK next month.


The film Tin also deserves a mention. Released in 2015, it was filmed in as equally perverse original manner as Bait, maybe even more so. Like Bait, we also went to a screening of the film (in a church in Redruth) accompanied by a talk by the film's director, Bill Scott. The micro-budget film, shot for £100,000, is set in West Cornwall in Victorian times, at the end of the mining boom.

The film was originally a play performed by Miracle Theatre (based on a novel about bank swindling in Cornwall), and filming was shot entirely using green screen in the evenings after the play's performance over several years, with the backgrounds added later, giving the film a odd and distinctive feel. The film features Jenny Agutter, who ironically (considering the other two films) owns houses in London and Cornwall.

Previously on Barnflakes
Top 30 of the year
Random film review: Straw Dogs
The lost art of the double bill
Double bill me

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