A disturbing, intense, and important film, The Arbor, directed by Clio Barnard, examines British playwright Andrea Dunbar’s short life as an artist and a parent and the role her impoverished environment played in both endeavors. Dunbar, who died of a brain hemorrhage at 29, was hailed as “a genius straight from the slums.” Her first play The Arbor, which she began as a school assignment when she was 15, was produced by London’s prestigious Royal Court Theatre in 1980. Dunbar set foot in a theater for the first time when she attended its premiere. It went on the win the Young Writers Award and secure a New York production. She would write two more plays and adapt one for film before her death, all drawn from her life in a tough public housing project in Bradford, West Yorkshire. Dunbar juggled the demands of her success and talent with the requirements of parenting three small children, a task complicated by her growing alcoholism.
While the film reflects on Dunbar’s life, it is her oldest daughter, Lorraine, who is the film’s true focus. Through Lorraine, Barnard traces the effects of poverty, racism, substance abuse, and parental neglect, as well as the journey pain makes from one generation to another, touching ever more lives.
Barnard conducted two years’ worth of interviews with Dunbar’s family. Pioneering a new technique to great effect, Dunbar films actors lip-synching to the audiotapes of those interviews. The result is more compelling than actual filmed interviews with the family members could have been. The actors—who are immensely skilled—always look into the camera as they speak; and rather than the talking-head shots associated with interviews, they wash dishes, fold laundry, and wipe motor oil from their hands, allowing the backdrop of working- class lives to feature strongly in the film.
Interspersed with the interviews are scenes from Dunbar’s plays, which, because they are autobiographical, function as glimpses into Dunbar’s past. We see not only an articulate, uncompromising, and witty writer, but a young girl whose father is an abusive alcoholic, whose brother has been killed in a car wreck, who is reviled for choosing a Pakistani as her lover, and who ultimately has to flee his physical abuse to protect her unborn child. This child is Lorraine.
Barnard also weaves into the mix clips of actual interviews with Dunbar. She ends the film with a clip of Andrea holding her infant daughter, Lorraine, and lovingly pronouncing her a good baby. While her other two children bear their mother no ill will, Lorraine suffered clear damage as a result of Dunbar’s choices. Manjinder Virk (Lorraine) masterfully invites us into the pain of a neglected, mixed-race child and holds us there. Even when Lorraine’s words are bitter and angry, Virk keeps us centered in her grief, vulnerability, and isolation. The result is a carefully drawn, perceptively rendered, and intensely moving portrait – all the more important because it is a portrait of the kind of person society usually leaves voiceless.
The Arbor is a film that is hard to see precisely because it forces us to see, up close, the far-reaching effects on individual lives of poor decisions and of cruelty, racism, poverty, and abuse. You might want a drink afterward. But more than that, you might want to go home and be kind to someone.
Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.
The Arbor is playing at West End Cinema – 2301 M Street NW, in Washington, DC. Purchase tickets online.
Director/Screenplay: Clio Barnard
Cast: Christine Bottomley (Lisa), Neil Dudgeon (Steve), Robert Emms (David Dunbar), Natalie Gavin (Andrea Dunbar), Jimmy Mistry (Yousaf ) and Manjinder Virk (Lorraine).
Watch the trailer.