Foreign & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video ">

Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video

Rotten Tomatoes
Showtimes & Tickets
Enter Zip Code:

Natalie Gavin in THE ARBOR (Photo: Nick Wall)

Written & Directed by Clio Barnard
Produced by Tracy O’Riordan
Released by Strand Releasing
UK. 94 min. Not Rated
Manjinder Virk, Christine Bottomley, Monica Dolan, Natalie Gavin, Danny Webb, Robert Emms, Neil Dudgeon & Jimi Mistry

The Arbor is an intense revelation. It is not just a bio-doc of the tragic life and death of a young, talented writer. It is not only a searing portrait of the destructive inheritance of addiction and domestic violence within three generations of one troubled family. It is more than another sorry tale of a tough, claustrophobic neighborhood rife with racism, crime, and poverty. Debut feature director Clio Barnard has made one of the best documentaries of the year and a startlingly creative development in the genre.

Barnard deftly draws on several streams of unusual resources to delve into the story of Andrea Dunbar and her family. First were Andrea’s own words through her three vibrant plays—The Arbor, begun as a school assignment then staged in London in 1980; Rita, Sue and Bob Too, produced in 1982 then turned into a cheeky film four years later; and Shirley (1986)—and her letters to her theatrical mentor, director Max Stafford-Clark. The straight outta Bradford, Yorkshire housing projects wunderkind brought a feisty woman’s perspective to the tradition of confrontational, alcohol-fueled British kitchen sink dramas. Hers was the tart, foul-mouthed voice of an abused girl from a large obstreperous family. Pregnant at 15, she went on to have two more children by different fathers. She is also seen and heard in the hometown-girl-made-good interviews on local television in the 1980s.

The family and their environs were updated to 2000 in Robin Soans’s play A State Affair. Commissioned by Stafford-Clark, the “verbatim theater” piece looked back at Dunbar’s death, at 29 in 1990, her now drug-wracked, deteriorated neighborhood, and Andrea’s bitter daughter Lorraine, who was 10 when her mother died, as she starts to repeat the same vicious downward cycle. (It was compiled somewhat like the “in their own words” work of Anna Deavere Smith.) Almost a decade later, Barnard met with the extended Dunbar family and friends, gaining their confidence over two years for intimate talks in more than 90 hours of audio recordings.

Barnard combines these elements in audacious interpretations and juxtapositions. She eschews the exhibitionism of reality TV or the awkward intrusiveness of observational documentaries. Instead she provides some privacy by employing just the voices from her interviews in what she calls “the audio screenplay.” Actors then lip synch the interviews in reconstructed settings (much less stylized than in Errol Morris’s work). The non-judgmental portrayals are especially striking when horrific events are related matter-of-factly or when grief pours out. (Their thick Yorkshire patois is helped by subtitles.) Several of the actors have personal ties to Andrea’s work. Her sister Pamela is portrayed by Kathryn Pogson, who starred in the first production of The Arbor. Two actors were in the film of Rita, Sue and Bob Too: George Costigan, who here is Jimmy the Wig, the older, alcoholic, abusive father of Andrea’s youngest child; and Kulvinder Ghir, who cameos as Rafee, Lorraine’s sugar daddy.

While family members recall Andrea more for staying out at pubs than staying up late to write, the autobiographical nature of her frank plays is brought home by bringing her first play homescenes from The Arbor are staged in the projects where the Dunbar family lived. In excerpts from several scenes, local resident Natalie Gavin conversationally plays the “The Girl” with brass, eerily bringing teenage Andrea to life. (If Bradford looks familiar, it was also the setting for the Red Riding Trilogy, and that film’s serial killer is referred to as yet another threat to struggling young women there—a friend of Andrea’s was one his few surviving victims.) To emphasize the connections between fact and fiction of paternal influences, Danny Webb portrays both Stafford-Clark in interviews and “The Father” in the outdoor performance. With the players surrounded by gawking locals, “The Girl” and her cohorts comment from a sofa, moments that seems taken from the almost identical philosophizing perch in the first season of David Simon’s The Wire, an iconic profile of another urban community doomed by unemployment and drugs.

After the opening sequence that reconstructs a terrifying episode from the lives of Andrea’s children, the focus shifts more and more to her elder daughter Lorraine (portrayed by Manjinder Virk). As Lorraine blames all her hardships—abuse, rape, drugs, prostitution, and worse—on the mother she cannot forgive, Barnard gradually reveals that the extensive interviews with her are taking place in prison. Sorrowfully, the poignant excerpts from Andrea’s plays and the interviews emphasize the repeating patterns of choices within her family. Playing along with the film’s theatrical debut at the Film Forum in New York City is the rarely seen comedy Rita, Sue and Bob Too, a lasting reminder that for a brief time Andrea Dunbar self-confidently looked ahead to a more hopeful future through art. Nora Lee Mandel
April 29, 2011



Archive of Previous Reviews

Contact us