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The Arbor is an unusual documentary-of-sorts that delighted critics and put its director, British video artist Clio Barnard, on the map as an exciting new voice. The Arbor adopts its name from the play by Anne Dunbar, a troubled woman who wrote about her experiences growing up in what seems like the bleakest working class town in Great Britain. The movie, however, is not an adaptation of the play. Or anything resembling a traditional biopic of the author. Its structure is something quite uncommon, and probably one of the big reasons the movie made such an impression.
Here’s what’s going in The Arbor as far as structure goes: the film intercuts between two main narratives. The first narrative is made up of reenactments of Dunbar’s autobiographical play, with Natalie Gavin playing the author’s fictionalized version of herself. These reenactments are performed on a sort of park square, in the middle of the neighborhood Dunbar grew up, and with the town’s current residents observing the producers in the background. The second narrative features interviews with people that knew Dunbar, most notably her daughter Lorraine. These interviews are unique in that Barnard has actors lip-synch to the original audio. Thus, we hear the voice of Lorraine Dunbar, but we see actor Majinder Virk saying the words.
This unconventional approach makes The Arbor an almost unclassifiable film. It is not interested in being a biography or a documentary, but in making connections between realities and fictions. It presents us with Dunbar’s purest expression of her own life in the form of her play, and juxtaposes it with a poetic, more symbolic version of Lorraine’s drama. As the film goes on, it becomes clear that Barnard is most interested in the relationship between these two women.
Lorraine was the product of a controversial relationship between Dunbar and a Pakistani man who never assumed the responsibilities of being a father (the relationship was controversial because Dunbar’s neighborhood was extremely racist). Dunbar was an alcoholic with a very delicate mind, and her relationship with Lorraine was tense to the point of catastrophe. Lorraine grew up immersed in drugs and self-hatred, never quite forgiving the mother who died at the young age of 29.
To say that the life story of Andrea and Lorraine is bleak would be putting it mildly. If this weren’t based on facts, one would say the story is too over-the-top to be believed. And the truth is Barnard’s stylistic approach makes the already tragic story sound even more dramatic. The second half of the film is disappointingly weak, especially compared to the first, as Barnard immerses herself deeper and deeper into Lorraine’s personal troubles and tragic stories. We see less of Dunbar’s play, and the movie comes to rely and more in narration and less in any sort of visuals.
The Arbor is an original movie, no one can take that away. But it is also a disappointing movie, as Barnard doesn’t seem to find a way to enhance Dunbar’s story through her structural ideas, or vice versa. The movie becomes more interested in personal docudrama and less in the form of its narrative. I feel a little heartless saying this, but Barnard’s possible exploration of big ideas such as the role of art and autobiography in intergenerational relationships seemed more interesting to me than the particulars of Andrea and Lorraine’s stories.
Grade: 6 out of 10