The Arbor

11 Jan

Title: The Arbor
Year: 2011
Director: Clio Barnard
Writer: –
Starring: Manjinder Vink, Christine Bottomley, Natalie Gavin
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Runtime: 94 min
IMDb Rating: 7.0
Rotten Tomatoes: 95%
Metacritic: 88

I’ve been wanting to catch up with this film for over half a year easily, and then a reader of mine let me know about a week ago that it was available online and that it was “a damn good movie”, so a big thanks to the user over at WrongLikeRight for the heads up, not to mention that it was an absolutely accurate assessment, The Arbor is definitely a damn good movie. The sheer way the film is presented to us is unlike anything we’ve seen before, but we’ll get to that in a bit. This is a film about Andrea Dunbar, the British playwright who at fifteen made the play with which this film shares its title, writing it as an assignment for her English class, a darkly humorous approach to a story very resembling her own, about a pregnant teenager with an abusive father.

Soon thereafter she got a wider audience when she wrote Rita, Sue and Bob Too which was later adapted as a film in 1986, but in 1990, at age twenty-nine, Dunbar died from a brain hemorrhage. It was her personal life that inspired her work, and it serves as just an interesting read; being pregnant for the first time when she was only fifteen but having the baby being stillborn at six months, then going on to having three babies, two of them while she was still a teenager, from three different fathers, becoming a heavy drinker in the process. Her eldest, Lorraine, becoming a heroin addict and getting convicted of manslaughter in 2007 for causing the death of her child by gross neglect that permitted the infant to ingest methadone. Stories of poverty, sexual and substance abuse plague the story of Andrea Dunbar and her three children.

The way director Clio Barnard crafts this look at her life is truly innovate. Not only does she not deliver a straight documentary, nor does she makes an adaptation of The Arbor to shine a light on the life of its author, but she does a sort of experimental film that truly transcends regular categorization. She spent years recording interviews with people close to Dunbar, and then she got actors to lip-sync the recorded audio, verbatim theater it’s called, but it’s done in such an amazing way, the actors fully making you believe, with the nuances and mannerisms they bring to their flawless lip-syncing, that you’re actually watching them speaking the words that appear to be coming out of their mouths. This is done so that Ms. Barnard can get these recorded bits into situations that weren’t there when he recorded them, and as such manages to heighten the dramatic effect of the interviews. The result is pretty spectacular to watch unravel.

It’s amazing, it may take a bit of getting used to, but the result is tremendously absorbing, not only because the lip-syncing is so unnoticeable, but because it enables the director to get the actors playing the real-life people to inhabit real places in Dunbar’s life that add a lot to the overall effect of the film. The film also focusses a lot on the relationship between Dunbar and Lorraine, who was ten years-old when her mother died, forcing the now-grown-up Lorraine to examine her mother’s work, and reflect on how eerily similar both their lives have turned out to be, accomplished by interweaving these interviews with staged scenes from the play which are set in the street where Dunbar grew up, which only heightens the connections between these tragic lives. Manjinder Vink is the actress in charge of playing Lorraine and she does such a phenomenal job, saying so much just with her facial expressions, her own tales of rape and addiction going hand-in-hand by her bitter memories of her mother and the disregard she had for her.

So, as you can attest, The Arbor is a film that’s pretty complexly shown to us, with so many layers we have to deal with and comprehend, but that is also simply shot and that is really all the better for the unusual approach it takes to tell the story of Andrea Dunbar. From the stuff we get from the people surrounding her to voice what she was like to others, to the footage we have of her and her autobiographical plays serving as an example of what she thought of herself. And if you don’t like that whole thing about actors acting out the words of others, just wait until you see how much those words are amplified when used under the situations they are here. Not to mention that the reason why the interviews were recorded is probably because people wouldn’t have been as open with such delicate subjects had they been filmed.

This is, as I was told, a damn good movie. I liked it better when it focussed on Dunbar than when it focussed on Lorraine, but even then this is a truly smart piece of filmmaking, it breaks new ground with the way it tells its story and speaks of so many themes, each building up on the suffering exemplified by the other, and watching different perspectives, like say Lorraine and her sister Lisa’s, reminiscing about the same subject, their mother, and seeing the different recollections they had of the same event, which is quite enlightening. Stellar direction, complex and unusual yet fully realized performances, and a prose drenched in a bitterness that weaves the very similar stories of mother and daughter together, this film is fantastic.

Grade: A-

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