I have finally got round to watching The Arbor, Clio Barnard’s depiction of the life of playwright Andrea Dunbar and, more importantly, the life she left behind, following her sudden death in her twenties. What I assumed to be a gritty and emotional documentary turned out to be the most extraordinarily refreshing piece of cinema I have seen for quite some time.
The film begins by looking at the life and, in particular, the teenage years of Andrea Dunbar. Growing up in Bradford, on a poverty-stricken estate, is what gave Dunbar the realistic subjects and characters for her writing. We learn about Dunbar’s personal struggles and are given an honest and, occasionally harsh, view of a woman, an alcoholic, a playwright and a mother. Andrea’s upbringing and life only takes up the first third of this film. The most shocking and fascinating part of this story is that of her daughters. After Dunbar died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage at the age of 29, she left behind a broken family to whom she owed many answers.
Before I go any further, I must explain what it is that is, technically, so impressive about The Arbor. Barnard has taken the audio of the real people in this story and succeeded in getting actors to lip-sync to the words and play the characters, visually. We hear the real people, their voices and their opinions; we watch professional performers re-create their physical reactions and characters. The results are impeccable. The two worlds, the performance and the truth, merge together to create the most believable characters you are likely to find in any true story tale.
The saddest of all the stories is that of Andrea’s oldest daughter, Lorraine. As we discover more about Lorraine and her mental scars that she blames her mother for, you begin to realise how brave and honest this exceptional film really is. Barnard was not afraid to reveal the true story and address the major flaws that Andrea possessed. Her plays and other works are still acknowledged, but without taking focus away from the real issues that this film is addressing. By performing scenes from Dunbar’s plays on location in Bradford, on the estate where she grew up, Barnard reveals how clear Dunbar’s vision and awareness of her situation was.
With its ambitious and highly affective use of mixed audio and performance and with its courageous and unexpected approach to the subject, The Arbor has left me feeling very moved. One thing is for sure, Clio Barnard is a British director to keep your eye on.
Thanks for reading and let’s all keep supporting our beloved film industry.