Numerous celluloid experiments have fudged reality and fiction lately, but few are as formally inventive or socially revelatory as “The Arbor,” Clio Barnard’s intergenerational exploration of playwright Andrea Dunbar’s working-class family. Dramatically spellbinding and intellectually stimulating, pic abstractly manipulates multiple layers of representation to shattering effect. Deploying a technique known as verbatim theater, in which actors lip-synch words recorded by the real-life people they’re portraying, Barnard brilliantly counterpoints authentic sound with artificial imagery, criss-crossing the fragile boundaries separating narrative and documentary. A must-see entry in the ongoing evolution of cinematic formalism, “Arbor” also makes for one helluva popcorn outing.
In 1976, Dunbar, then 15, began writing “The Arbor,” a raw, lucid description of her experiences growing up in a Yorkshire housing project, the Buttershaw Estate, during the decline of the textile mills. Teenage pregnancy, racism, alcoholism and domestic violence were the order of the day. By the time she died at age 29 of a cerebral hemorrhage, she had become a heavy drinker, been beaten by several partners, given birth to three children by three different fathers, and penned three plays — one of which, the bleakly comic “Rita, Sue and Bob Too,” was made into a memorable film.
Some 20 years after the “The Arbor” opened in London, another play, “A State Affair” (2000), picked up where “Arbor” left off, structured around verbatim interview material from Dunbar’s family members and other bygone Buttershaw inhabitants.
Barnard’s pic incorporates all of these elements, some more directly than others. Scenes from the autobiographical play are casually staged on a green in the middle of the housing project, while thesps playing real family members stand on the sidelines and comment on the play’s events. Actresses portraying Dunbar’s daughters wander through their old house, recalling their childhood, speaking directly to the camera as they either blame or mourn Mom. But it is Dunbar’s daughter Lorraine (brilliantly embodied by Manjinder Virk), fast on her way to surpassing her mother in the field of self-destruction, whose story increasingly dominates Barnard’s film.
“A State Affair” ended with Lorraine’s verbal update of her mother’s play: Its more modern heroine would be on smack or crack cocaine instead of alcohol, working in the red-light district, sleeping with anyone and everyone for money. Her words (read by Virk on a bare stage) prove prophetic. By 2010, like her mother, she had given birth to three children by three different fathers. She also has been hooked on hard drugs for years, supported her habit through prostitution and spent time in jail. But Lorraine inherited more than her mother’s hopeless cycle of violence and abuse. She, too, has a way with words, and her tales of woe lend increasing dynamism to the film: The very elements that first distanced the pic’s avalanche of social horrors now coalesce to intensify them.
Already juggling a seemingly impossible number of different sources, helmer Barnard bookends the film with yet another: excerpts from 1980’s TV coverage of Andrea Dunbar, including glimpses of her actual family. These interwoven distancing techniques, when applied to such kitchen-sink fatalism, have the effect of breaking down the ties that bind; to see attitudes embodied apart from age or chronology, no longer integral parts of someone’s psyche or immediate circumstances, proves amazingly liberating.