FILM REVIEW: The Arbor (2010)

The Arbor (UK, 2010)
Directed by Clio Bernard
Starring Christine Bottomley, Manjinder Virk, Robert Emms, George Costigan

In an age where demographics and target audiences are everything, The Arbor is a film which genuinely defies genre. Nestling somewhere between a documentary and an art film, between a Crimewatch re-enactment and the work of Mike Leigh, it is extremely difficult to pigeonhole it or to compare it readily with any film on a similar subject. Taken on its own terms, it is a tough and often harrowing portrayal of Bradford and its inhabitants in a particular time and place, and while not perfect, it contains much which will intrigue and stimulate.The Arbor is a biopic of the late Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar, a single mother with three children by three different partners. Her first play, The Arbor, was premiered in London when she was 18 years old. This and her later works - Rita, Sue and Bob Too and Sheila - looked candidly at life on Bradford estates, dealing with subjects like teenage pregnancy, drug addiction and extra-marital affairs. After Rita, Sue and Bob Too was adapted into a film, Dunbar's output declined and she became known as a heavy drinker. She died of a cerebral haemorrhage in 1990, aged just 29.

While such a story contains enough drama and struggle for any run-of-the-mill biopic, there is very little about The Arbor that could be called run-of-the-mill. The film mixes documentary footage of Dunbar and her family, sections of The Arbor staged in the open air, and footage of actors playing members of her family. The gimmick (if that's not too churlish a term) is that the actors are lip-syncing to audio clips of the actual individuals; when their lips move, the real-life people are speaking.
There have been other projects which have used people lip-syncing to recordings in various ways. Think of the Creature Comforts shorts by Aardman, where the voices of the British public are synced up to animations of different animals. Or, to some extent, the fantasy sequences in The Singing Detective, in which Michael Gambon reminisces (or fantasises) about singing old jazz standards in a club. But these comparisons are quite fleeting and don't begin to describe what effect this device has.

It would be tempting to describe it as a Brechtian device, something which is designed to alienate an audience, causing them to realise the artifice of what they are seeing. But that isn't really true either, since the predominant effect is not alienation. The lip-syncing may seem odd at first, but it's done in such a technically proficient manner that you very rarely find yourself distracted by it. Even when the actors' sequences are intercut with footage of Dunbar's real-life children and parents, you don't find yourselves struggling to identify with whatever or whoever is on screen.The Arbor has two central themes, both of which are brought out in a fascinating and original way by this device. The first is an examination of the truth as something which is clouded and fragmented - we have one figure, with multiple stories surrounding her and different viewpoints on the events that befell her. There is a Rashamon-like disagreement among the characters as to what Dunbar did and what she was like, and like Rashamon it is up to us to decide who is telling the truth. Lorraine, her second child, hates her mother and can't forgive her for what she did, while her first-born Lisa won't hear a word against her.

By having actors lip-sync to actual recordings of actual dialogue, we are presented with a series of convincing but conflicting accounts about an individual we know very little about. If it was just the actors speaking, it would be relatively easy to discover the author's inherent bias, and find out where the blame lay, at least in the mind of the filmmakers. Under these circumstances, we have no such luxury and there is no clear right or wrong. Late in the film, there is a staged reading from A State Affair, a play about Andrea Dunbar lifted entirely from the words of Bradford residents who knew her. We hear the mixed reaction of Dunbar's offspring and we are forced to question how well any of us can know anyone.The second theme of The Arbor is about the impact of the past and how it lingers in the present. From this perspective, the lip-syncing represents how the ghosts of the past still communicate through our present selves. The events of Dunbar's tragic and troubled life are replicated to some extent by what happens to her children. Lorraine in particular goes through a number of abusive boyfriends, gets into drugs and ends up in prison. Beyond Lorraine's remarks about her mother, the film gives very little clue as to how much her predicament is down to Andrea, compared to more general social problems or her own free will and foolishness.

The subjects dealt with in The Arbor are every bit as tough as those covered in Dunbar's plays nearly 30 years beforehand. There is frequent talk of drug abuse and addiction, along with prostitution, multiple teenage pregnancies, child mortality and alcoholism. When written out as a list like this, one might expect the film to go through these problems like a tick-box of 'working-class misery', or for the inhabitants of Bradford to be manipulated by a director wanting to take pot shots at modern Britain. But instead, the film treats these subjects in a very un-manipulative way. There is a great deal of shock and sadness on the part of the viewer, which comes simply from the way in which people talk about these things so candidly.Although it defies genre and comparison, the film to which The Arbor bears the closest resemblance is Savage Grace, Tom Kalin's twisted and difficult examination of the life and times of Barbara Daly Baekeland. On the surface the films couldn't be more different; The Arbor is a realistic account of 'the poor', while Savage Grace is a hyper-stylised, heavily choreographed examination of the filthy rich. But in both cases, the approaches which these films take are probably the only way you could have told these respective stories. It's very hard to make a film about 'underprivileged' individuals without resorting to clichés, stereotypes or mawkish sentimentality, and The Arbor deserves credit for steadfastly avoiding any of these.

The problems with The Arbor lie less in its ideas than the manner in which they are executed. After Andrea Dunbar dies just shy of the hour mark, the film steadily begins to lose its focus; it stops being a biopic per se but isn't quite sure where the stories should go from there. It becomes a film less about the character of Andrea than about the impact of her lifestyle, something which is even harder to pin down. It goes back and forth between Lisa, Lorraine and other relatives, all of whom have interesting things to say but to much less of an end.

From a more technical point of view, the film is lacking in some of its editorial decisions. On at least three occasions the screen fades to black at a point which seems like a fairly satisfying place to end. But on each occasion another scene starts up soon after, which gives the distinct impression of a film which either doesn't know how to end or which has multiple endings, none of which are conclusive. This could be intentional on the part of the filmmakers, showing how Dunbar's life and legacy will carry on beyond these stories. But even with that in place it still feels rather clumsy.The Arbor is one of the most unusual and striking films released this year, and should be praised for taking such an odd idea and carrying it through in such an enthralling way. Aside from a number of tough moments, it has technical and narrative flaws which prevent it from being a complete success. But you would be hard-pushed to find another documentary which is this hard-hitting, or another art film which is this understated. An intriguing and insightful piece of work.

Rating: 3.5/5
Verdict: A powerful and insightful portrait-of-sorts


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