DIRECTED BY: Clio Barnard
FEATURING: Manjinder Virk, Christine Bottomley, Natalie Gavin
PLOT: A quasi-documentary about the short life of Yorkshire playwright Andrea Dunbar, the
impoverished housing estate she called home, and the troubled family she left behind, told with actors lip-synching to tape recordings of real-life individuals.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Arbor is built around an unusual, film-length gimmick. The movie itself, however, is a straightforward telling of Dunbar’s life. The story is surprising, but all too believable in its depiction of circumstances impossible to overcome.
COMMENTS: Andrea Dunbar was 15 when she began writing a play about her life in a working-class slum. The play, called The Arbor, was eventually discovered and produced by the prestigious Royal Court Theater. Her next play, Rita, Sue and Bob Too! was successful enough to be made into a film, and it seemed she had the makings of a great theatrical career. But Dunbar was something of a screw-up. Probably alcoholic, she was careless with relationships and had three children by three different fathers. Ultimately, she died of a cerebral hemorrhage while out drinking in her favorite pub at the age of 29.
This biography would be interesting enough, but The Arbor has a trick up its sleeve: director Barnard recorded interviews with Andrea Dunbar’s family and friends, and then cast actors to lip-synch those interviews, literally mouthing every word, stutter, and vocal tic. It sounds like a stunt, but this technique gives Barnard a level of freedom unprecedented in documentary filmmaking. Rather than a series of talking heads narrating unseen events, Barnard is able to place her actors in tableaux that reflect the accounts provided by the authentic voices. In one early scene, recalling a fire set by one of Dunbar’s daughters, two adult actors stand side-by-side in the burning room, delivering contradictory recollections of the people they portray in a way the two real women never could.
It’s a daring convention, and sometimes a distracting one. A title card announces the technique at the start, and it’s almost impossible to forget as you watch each actor’s lips and try to get your head around the idea that they are channeling someone else’s voice. Barnard seems to welcome the disorientation. Consider that one of the actors (George Costigan, playing one of Dunbar’s occasional boyfriends) was also one of the stars of the movie of Rita, Sue and Bob Too! Blurring reality seems to be the goal. Add to that the fact that scenes are filmed in actual locations, including the pub where Dunbar died, and the line between reality and fiction is almost completely obscured.
Perhaps an even more clever touch is the staging of scenes from the play The Arbor on the streets of the Buttershaw Estate where the playwright grew up. Even more than the archival footage of Dunbar from over 25 years ago, her play brings the world of late 70s working-class England to life, and the contrast with today reveals the community to be a gravity well of misery from which no one seems able to escape. Plus, it’s immediately clear how thinly-disguised Dunbar’s characters are. She, too, kept reality at a close remove.
The word “harrowing” is almost cliché in stories like this, but it’s hard to think of a better one as we learn the awful fate of Dubar’s daughter Lorraine. An alien in her own family (half-Pakistani, she is scorned by the community, and possibly even by her own mother), Lorraine has resentment to spare. However, it becomes clear that she has made even worse life choices than her mother, culminating in an unspeakable personal tragedy. Here is where the gimmick works best, as the deadened voice of the real Lorraine Dunbar mixes with the sad eyes of actress Manjinder Virk to create the perfect blend of lament and hopelessness.
Ultimately, The Arbor is a bold attempt to do something new with the documentary format, to find a visually compelling way to tell a true story. The lens we view the story through is an odd one, but the film’s real power is an all-too-familiar story of people in desperate circumstances. Dunbar got a little closer to making her way out, but the outcome is heartbreakingly familiar.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The disconcerting effect of the lip-syncing becomes exacerbated as Barnard surrealistically positions her subjects within their own descriptions of the past…The resulting eeriness combines identification with the characters and a Brechtian removal from them, establishing the mystery of the director’s intent.”–Eric Kohn, INDIEWire (contemporaneous)