Life, death, art, all served raw
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Aug 05, 2011
A saga of abuse and addiction - and of its legacy over four generations - "The Arbor" is a tragedy of almost Greek proportions, told in a vulgarity-strewn British dialect so thick it needs subtitles. For the morbidly curious, it's mesmerizing. But it's also a singularly watchable story for the strange, and strangely fitting, way in which it's told.
The heroine at the center of the film is the English playwright Andrea Dunbar, a product of the slums of Bradford, Yorkshire. As a teenager, Dunbar had her first play, "The Arbor," which took its name and gritty, verite subject matter from the street Dunbar grew up on, produced at London's Royal Court Theatre in 1980. Her second autobiographical play, "Rita, Sue and Bob Too," was made into a film in 1986. She wrote one other script, "Shirley," before dying in 1990 of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 29, an alcoholic and single mother of three children by three men.
The film, which is kind of a documentary and kind of not, reveals Dunbar's life story mainly through the eyes - and the words - of her now-grown children, Lorraine, Lisa and Andrew. Although they do not appear on camera, their voices are heard, and lip-synced to, by a trio of actors "playing" them. Actors also appear in the roles of other friends, family members and associates of the playwright; their real voices are used, if not their faces. Sprinkled throughout the film are also scenes from the play "The Arbor," whose events closely parallel those of Dunbar's life, performed by actors on the actual streets and sidewalks of Bradford.
Admittedly, it's a little disconcerting at first. And not because the gimmick doesn't work; it's shockingly seamless and believable. Manjinder Virk, who plays Dunbar's oldest daughter, Lorraine, is especially good, and you soon forget that she's just moving her lips to someone else's words. (She'd better be convincing. Of the three children, Lorraine, a recovering heroin junkie and ex-convict who gave birth to an addicted baby, has suffered misfortune to an almost unbelievable degree.)
But there's a good reason that filmmaker Clio Barnard chose to lay out Dunbar's life - and the fallout from it - in this fashion, which she calls "verbatim theater." That's to underscore the porous boundary between the playwright's raw art and her even rawer life, which fueled it. In the film "The Arbor," just as in Dunbar's play of the the same name, the line between what's staged and what's authentic is so blurred it becomes invisible.
Barnard also includes a bit of archival interview footage of Dunbar and her family. We see her alcoholic father, for instance, expressing the hope that his daughter will go on to great success one day. (Interestingly, he admits to not even having read her first play. But why would he want to? It portrays him in a deeply unflattering light.)
As for Dunbar's alcoholism, that's brought out chiefly through reminiscences by Lorraine, whose circumstances are, in many ways, even more tragic than her mother's. With its poetically suggestive title, "The Arbor" proves that, at least in this case, the apple really doesn't fall far from the tree.
Contains frequent obscenity and discussion of addiction, abuse and rape. In Yorkshire-accented English with English subtitles.