Director: Clio Bernard
Cast: Christine Bottomley, George Costigan, Monica Dolan, Jimi Mistry & Andrea Dunbar
By Jack Mays
“Unflinching…harrowing…fearless”. So say the IFI’s programme notes for The Arbor, directed by first-timer Clio Barnard. I can’t say I wasn’t warned.
What I suppose you might call a “dramatised documentary”, The Arbor chronicles two successive generations of familial strife and personal torment, from the 1980s to the present day. Andrea Dunbar was a talented playwright, who made a name for herself with her authentic portrayals of the Bradford estate in which she group up. Andrea’s private life, however, was far from perfect.
Centred mainly around the testimonies of Andrea’s half-Asian daughter Lorraine, The Arbor tells the—often shocking—true story of Andrea’s troubled personal life and the emotional scars she left behind following her untimely death. Lorraine recounts the unspeakable hardship and torment suffered since childhood: “I would rather have not been born if I knew what I was coming into,” she says at one point. Hearing her life story, you can understand why.
The film succeeds in conveying the importance of family and a child’s upbringing. Through Lorraine’s intimate confessions and her family’s outpourings, the film shows, firsthand, the damage inflicted when families are uprooted and childhoods violated.
A fatalistic streak pervades the film: poverty and neglect are seen as part of a vicious cycle, with those ensnared in it certain to “sink further into that black hole.” From mother to daughter, daughter to mother, the tormented becomes the tormentor, the innocent the guilty. In the film’s most shocking moment, the cycle is brought to an end—but at the greatest cost imaginable.
Oddly, actors lip sync the intimate testimonies of the real-life people at the heart of this tragic story. Presumably an attempt to make the film more visually arresting, it’s an opportunity wasted: very little is asked of the little-known cast, apart from to sit idley and stare dolefully into the camera.
Nevertheless, The Arbor remains a remarkably powerful tale. Indeed, never were the words “unflinching” and “fearless” more deserved. Probably the most “harrowing” thing about The Arbor, however, is the implication that this story is not a unique one—that there are more Andrea and Lorraine Dundbars in the world, whose story will not be told.
The Arbor is being shown exclusively at the IFI till the 18th of November.
Trailer to The Arbor