Monday, 23 September 2013

The Arbor (2011)

The Arbor is the best documentary film I've seen since Dreams Of a Life. Like that film, it also hits you with one hell of an emotional punch in its slow unravelling of a tragic life.

Andrea Dunbar was a flickering flame that burned bright but all too swiftly. She wrote her first play, The Arbor, at the age of 15 in one of her school books. Heavily based on her own life on the Brafferton Arbor, a street on Buttershaw Estate, Bradford, the play - like all of Dunbar's writing - had a realistic rhythm to its dialogue that is redolent of working class northern communities. Dunbar was an observer and recorder and it is still staggering to think of the work she produced at such an early age. In an interesting diversion (and a chance to gain more of an understanding of Dunbar through this semi autobiographical work) scenes from The Arbor are played out in the very street itself by actors like Natalie Gavin and Jimi Mistry, making for unique theatre, and interspersed with clips from archive documentary and interview footage featuring Andrea, her mother and father.

 Her next play was probably her most famous, Rita Sue and Bob Too which was subsequently turned into a film in the mid 80s. By the end of that decade however, Andrea was dead. Collapsing of a brain tumour in her local boozer (the one featured in the infamous Black Lace 'Gangbang' song scene in the aforementioned film) at the age of 29. 

The Arbor is an engrossing experimental drama that seeks to explore the life of Dunbar and her kin as well as being a social document for the neighbourhood itself. A piece of verbatim theatre, the director, Clio Barnard, casts actors (including Neil Dudgeon, Monica Dolan and Rita Sue and Bob Too's George Costigan) to play Dunbar's friends and family who lip sync their real life counterparts recollections. It's mercifully not as gimmicky as it sounds and after 10-15 mins I defy you to spot the miming - so fully does each actor immerse themselves in the real person they are presenting to the audience.

It's clear to see that the tragedy of Dunbar's life is that she died too young. For society, she died too young to mature as a writer and capitalise in her early success, for her family, she died too young to bring her children up into the world. It is the latter tragedy that The Arbor ultimately tackles head on. The film belongs to Dunbar's daughters (both from different fathers) Lorraine and Lisa. 

Lisa (Christine Bottomley) has nothing hut admiration, love and good words for her late mother, whereas mixed race Lorraine (Manjinder Virk) is the complete opposite, noticeably bitter and angry towards her mother from the start. This contrasting viewpoint is best displayed in the film's opening scene and the way both women relate a story from their childhood about a fire in their bedroom; Lisa sees it as a funny anecdote to discuss and considers herself responsible for getting themselves locked into a room that is slowly burning around them, whereas Lorraine recalls her mother locking them in, and so for her it is a story of neglect. The contrasting truths is immediately fascinating and well handled by Barnard. Clearly for Lorraine, being Andrea Dunbar's daughter is a burden and, as her biographical story plays out throughout the film, one can see why; history repeats itself in Lorraine, a woman who subsequently neglects her own children, having two taken away from her by social services, and being charged with the manslaughter of another, Harris, a baby born addicted to the drugs she was heavily indulging in whilst selling her body to pay for her habit.

A tragic true life story for modern times, The Arbor is ultimately about loss; the loss of Andrea at a tragically young age after a difficult life of alcohol, the loss the theatre had as a result, the loss of Lorraine to drug addiction and the loss of her son, Harris.

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