The Arbor: Bleak but brilliant


The Arbor
94 mins
Cert: 15
Dir: Clio Barnard

4/5 stars.

Andrea Dunbar wrote her first play, The Arbor, at 15, having never before been to the theatre. By 18, the play was staged at the Royal Theatre in London. Her follow-up, Rita, Sue and Bob Too (for which she is best remembered), was a triumph, and was made into a film by Alan Clark in 1987. Yet her formal achievements did not translate into personal happiness. Unable or unwilling to leave the tough Buttershaw estate in Bradford where she grew up, Dunbar descended into depression and alcoholism, struggling with three children, and finally died of a brain haemorrhage in a pub toilet at the age of 29. Her eldest daughter, Lorraine, apparently inherited her mother’s destructive, addictive personality. She fell into drugs and prostitution, and eventually prison, as a result of her son’s accidental overdose on her methadone supply.

Clio Barnard’s film is eccentric in form, audaciously merging documentary and drama to striking effect. The story of Dunbar and her familial legacy, particularly in the form of Lorraine’s own tragic life, is told through recorded interviews with the family themselves, subsequently acted out and mimed by actors. The effect is initially perplexing, but ultimately hypnotizing; the minimalist performances lend an atmosphere of dark serenity to the film, and consequently reinforce the simple power of the verbal narrative. That which is said, and left unsaid, weighs heavily on those involved here, particularly Lorraine: she laments her mother having never told her she loved her, and admitting she never wanted Lorraine to start with. Another set of actors perform a contemporary outdoor production of The Arbor – brave, but an unnecessary digression, coming across as undisciplined on the director’s part. To talk of Dunbar’s work is enough, it feels the wrong time to experience it.

One can question whether the film silently condemns Dunbar for failing Lorraine, but this seems too easy. Barnard gives voice to conflicting opinions from family members, and in doing so makes the film increasingly thought-provoking. While all the family members have certain failings, they are nonetheless sympathetic – reactionary emotions are not induced here, but an encouragement to accept the nature of the bleak lives recounted. The audience are challenged to recognise and understand the complexity of Dunbar’s life and family. Naturally, this can lead to issues that transcend one particular family: alcoholism, the nature of abandonment, the daily lives of those forced to grow up in relative, sometimes biting, poverty on Britain’s many council estates. The film is unflinching in its description of squalor and deprivation, and has a thorough feeling of authenticity.

The Arbor is a complex film, which powerfully presents the upsetting story of Dunbar, and her family, through an unorthodox delivery. Barnard has constructed her work with an obvious flair; while occasionally too stylized, The Arbor possesses an inherent sensitivity to its subjects and their lives, and lives on in the memory.

by Michael Letzer

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