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The Arbor

  • Film
  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
The Arbor

Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars

I hesitate to call this fascinating, slippery film an ‘experimental documentary’ in case it sends people who would otherwise enjoy its storytelling trickery and moving subject running for ‘Paranormal Activity 2’. It’s true that Clio Barnard revisits the life of the late playwright Andrea Dunbar, who wrote ‘Rita, Sue and Bob Too’ in the mid-’80s, by going back, journalistically, to her old Bradford stomping-ground, the hard-as-nails Buttershaw Estate.

But once she gets there, Barnard re-enacts scenes from Dunbar’s first play with actors, and instead of filming interviewees (Dunbar’s relatives, mainly) she records their voices and asks actors to play them in locations that suggest varying degrees of realism and – this is the interesting bit – lip-synch to their words. We see archive footage from Dunbar’s spell in the media spotlight, but, even then, Barnard sometimes frames that footage fictionally, such as beaming it through a modern television.

Dunbar wrote her first play, ‘The Arbor’, in the late 1970s when she was just 15, and three years later Max Stafford-Clark, another of Barnard’s interviewees, staged it at the Royal Court. Dunbar’s writing reflected the intrigues and hardships of the estate around her, and a mixed-race relationship in ‘The Arbor’ reflected her relationship with the father of her eldest daughter, Lorraine. Of all her interviewees, it’s Lorraine in whom Barnard takes the most interest as the young woman relates her saddening experiences as a junkie, prostitute and single mother.

Barnard likes to explore  connections over time, both biographical and literary, so while she identifies an unbroken line between Lorraine and her mother when it comes to their plain speaking, she also draws links between Dunbar’s work and her own by restaging scenes from ‘The Arbor’ on Brafferton Arbor, the square that gave the play its name. She also acknowledges the influence of another play on her film: in 2000, Stafford-Clark commissioned ‘A State Affair’, a play about the Buttershaw and Dunbar’s legacy. Not only does Barnard pick up where ‘A State Affair’ left off, but her lip-synching technique bears comparison to the play’s method of actors speaking the words of real interviewees.

The effect of the lip-synching scenes is like watching a subversive spin on the domesticity of Aardman’s ‘Creature Comforts’, for which cosy kitchen or living room scenes take on an air of mystery, an aura ?compounded by some of the tragic turns of Dunbar’s life. The actors are puppets of sorts, reminders of the hands behind the film, and the impossibility of miming perfectly reminds us that they’re reporting, not reconstructing.

It’s all very crafty, suggestive and enthralling. Best of all, Barnard’s strange method manages to be both questioning and coherent: the very fabric of the film admits that Barnard can only offer us versions of ‘the truth’, but those versions are still convincing and often staggeringly moving.

Written by Dave Calhoun

Release Details

  • Rated:15
  • Release date:Friday 22 October 2010
  • Duration:90 mins

Cast and crew

  • Director:Clio Barnard
  • Cast:
    • Neil Dudgeon
    • Monica Dolan
    • Jimi Mistry
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