Theatrical Review: THE ARBOR

Joshua Brunsting

by: Joshua Brunsting
April 28th, 2011

Rating: 5/5

Director: Clio Barnard
Cast: Kate RutterChristine Bottomley, George Costigan

Within the world of film, the documentary is often considered something of an outsider. Often fueled by talking heads and simple archival footage, the world of the documentary is either relatively stale, full of uninteresting slogs through uninteresting life stories or events, or wholly biased, with people like Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock turning themselves into bigger stars than their pieces of non-fiction.

And then there are films like THE ARBOR. Honestly, I don’t know if there is anything quite like THE ARBOR. And I mean that in the most loving and appreciative way possible. THE ARBOR comes to us thanks to director Clio Barnard, and follows the story of beloved, but deeply troubled, playwright Andrea Dunbar, as she goes from troubled teen, to overnight sensation after penning plays such as The Arbor, Rita, Sue and Bob Too, and Shirley, all of which launched her into true superstardom. Hell, even the fantastic filmmaker Allan Clarke found her play Rita, Sue and Bob Too, to be worthy of a feature film adaptation. However, a single mother of three children, all by different men, the woman became a heavy drinker, ultimately culminating in her death in 1990 after suffering a brain hemorrhage.

Now, while the story itself sounds interesting, it’s also one that deserves its own aesthetic, its own sense of style and narrative delivery. And thankfully, that’s exactly what THE ARBOR gives us. It gives it to us in spades.

The narrative is where this film truly shines. Using its fair share of archival footage, the film ultimately shows its passion and love for the source when it comes to the “talking head” aspects. Using actors to lip synch interviews, the film is both a harrowing look at this person’s rollercoaster life, and also a powerful Masters class in acting. Each syllable is given a deep sense of truth, as if these actors were replicants of the people spouting each line. Also, it allows for Barnard, a fantastic visualist, to give a sense of style and aesthetic drama to each single frame, be it the focus on a woman’s face, or a scene of a bed catching fire. This stylistic choice gives Barnard a lot of freedom, ultimately making the film one of the most cinematic documentaries in quite some time. And yes, it’s still very much a documentary.

Pairing perfectly with these neo-recreations are a series of performances of scenes from the play from which this film garners its name. They often pertain to the narrative we are being given, but also give a great insight as to just how personal and autobiographical this woman’s work was. Each line reading oozes this truth and reality, that you can’t help but be absolutely enthralled when watching this film.

It also helps that the performances are absolutely revelatory. The standout here is Manjinder Virk, playing Andrea’s first child, Lorraine. Lorraine’s eyes are the ones that we see this story through, and each moment Virk is on screen is an absolute heartbreaker. Whether it be a simple look into the camera, or the way she uses her face to bring out emotion during lip synching, Virk may not be speaking, but it’s her who we emotionally cling on to, and never let go. Barnard uses the parallels between both of the main women’s lives so perfectly, that you can’t help but think that history has simply repeated itself, this time, through a familial generation.  It’s a brutally honest performance, and one give for a human being who has had a brutally rough life. Natalie Gavin plays Andrea Dunbar, and is also quite good, but is given a truly “acting” role, as she’s only seen really during the performance pieces, and the rest of the supporting cast also truly hold up their end of the respective cinematic bargain.

Barnard, as a filmmaker, also holds up her end. Mixing these two aspects so seamlessly, the film is visually arresting. Very much a dreamlike piece of documentary filmmaking, the film is as much a piece of performance art as it is a piece of cinema. The film as a whole is not an easy one to sit down and watch, as it’s a very harrowing and haunting narrative, but be it simply two people sitting on a ledge, or a man beginning to talk while standing in the audience watching the performance pieces, the film is absolutely drenched in a singular and distinctive style, that for a beginning filmmaker like Barnard, proves that she is a director far beyond her years.

However, much the film may have ultimately moved yours truly, this is not quite a film for everyone.  Heavy on the accents, the film is a tough watch, particularly near the film’s final thirty minutes, when it’s simply one negative piece of information on top of a negative piece of information, and so on. THE ARBOR is a starkly powerful film that will move even the toughest of tough to tears, but it’s also one that won’t be too easy to toss back into your DVD player, or to revisit at your local arthouse. Also, for some, this directorial experiment may simply fall flat.

That said, if you allow yourself to get lost inside of this masterful piece of non-fiction filmmaking, you won’t be sorry. A cinematic blend of Ken Loach style and Andrea Arnold drama, THE ARBOR is an unforgettable look into the life of a truly gifted playwright whose demons not only plagued her until her death, but are sitting shotgun with her loved ones as they go on their respective rides that are their lives. Do not miss this film.

THE ARBOR is currently playing in limited release in NYC, but is soon to come to DVD for all to enjoy.

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  • Brandon

    Opening in Los Angeles on 5/13!

    • KateErbland

      Consider this marked in Sharpie in my day planner.

    • KateErbland

      Consider this marked in Sharpie in my day planner.

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