Directed by: Clio Barnard.
Starring: Manjinder Virk (Lorraine Dunbar), Christine Bottomley (Lisa Thompson), Natalie Gavin (The Girl), Parvani Lingiah (Young Lorraine), Danny Webb (Max Stafford-Clark / The Father), Kate Rutter (The Mother), Liam Price (Billy), Robert Haythorne (Fred).
Andrea Dunbar was an immensely gifted writer for a horrible background. Raised in a poor, racist housing development in Yorkshire, England, she poured her tortured feelings into her work. She died at the age of 29 - have produced three plays (the first, she wrote at the age of 15), one movie, and had three kids, by three different fathers. While she found career success, she was never able to leave the development behind her – and drank at the pub every day, until she died of a brain haemorrhage just a few days before Christmas.
Clio Barnard’s film, The Arbor (named after Dunbar’s first play) is a strange mixture of fiction and reality. It is one of the increasing number of films that combines documentary with fiction filmmaking. Here, he interviewed many people who knew Dunbar – including her kids – but although we hear them throughout the movie, we never see them. Instead, we have actors lip synching their conversations with the director. The effect in uncanny – the actors do a marvellous job of lip synching, even sighs and pauses. This device also allows Barnard two things. The first is to not show Dunbar’s family on camera, where they may clam up knowing they were being filmed. And the second is to “stage” the readings however he wants to. Dunbar’s daughter speaking to the camera and the bed behind them is on fire for example, that is something a normal documentary couldn’t do. Barnard also “stages” a scenes from Dunbar’s first play outside, on the streets where she grew up. Actors are performing the scenes where Dunbar meant them to take place – and as residents walk by in the background.
Yet, despite all the artistic tricks that Barnard employs to tell this story, the story itself comes through loud and clear – it never gets lost behind the artifice. This is a deeply sad story about the cycle of neglect, and the tricks memory plays on people. While Dunbar’s oldest daughter Lorraine (“played” by Manjinder Virk) recalls her mother, she tells stories of her leaving her children alone every night to go drinking at the pub, and who hadn’t even bought a single Christmas present when she died – despite in being less than a week before Christmas Day. Her other daughter, Lisa (Christine Bottomley), recalls a woman dedicated to her writing, staying up all night to do it. Yes, she drank, but not that much. Barnard films them telling their stories in the same room at the same time – neither are lying, but both are telling a different version of the same events.
Perhaps it’s their versions that explain their lives. Lisa certainly doesn’t have it easy, but she hasn’t followed her mother’s path into addiction quite like Lorraine has. An alcoholic, a drug addict, who like her mother has multiple kids from multiple fathers at a young age, Lorraine does her mother one worse – not simply neglecting her kids, but neglecting one to the point where he dies, and she is sent to jail for allowing it to happen.
Despite all the sadness in this film – and that is nearly wall to wall – there is poetry in the language – both what Dunbar wrote, and how her daughters speak – especially Lorraine. I have seen countless movies where people born in bad circumstances overcome their backgrounds to make successes of themselves because of their talent. The Arbor is the opposite – despite their talent and their intelligence, but Andrea and Lorraine Dunbar never could leave their past behind them.