The peanut gallery might say Clio Barnard's genre-bending The Arbor is a mixed-up moving target, but it's strikingly honed in on its subject: the lauded writer and loathed matriarch Andrea Dunbar. The scribe died of a brain hemorrhage in 1990 (she was only 29) and is most known for Rita, Sue and Bob Too, famously adapted to screen by Alan Clarke in 1986. Using a lip-synching method called "verbatim theater," accomplished by dubbing the actors with documentary recordings of the film's real-life subjects, the exercise in mimesis slices true. It arms the viewer to withstand the crestfallen topics. What's transacted is a complex cinematic cement mix that slowly hardens before your eyes. Audiences will bust through the doors to grapple with this twisted, genius scribe whose shortened life became savage game for her art.
Before she stumbled into acclaim as a playwright, Andrea Dunbar was a single mother living in a hardscrabble hamlet in Yorkshire, England. Brafferton Arbor, which resides in the Buttershaw housing where Dunbar grew-up, is the Brownsville of Britain. Addicts, roughnecks and misfits abound. Folks in the small slum are a pence-less bunch of hardened cats who wear scars and pain on their tearless faces. Scavenger dogs chew on charred bones from a fire pit, while Dunbar's septic-scented laundry hangs on a frayed clothesline. Dunbar's plays are performed by a motley troupe on the actual Buttershaw premises—replete with foul language and makeshift sets composed of refuse and shoddy furniture. The heavy material touches on suggestive girl talk about shagging some bloke in the water closet, but kidsplay graduates to family abuse, mental disorders and almost merciless racism. Present day families step out their door a few paces on the less-blighted grounds to watch these NC-17 yarns.
There's a duality to Dunbar: she's both artist and victimized perpetrator. Her plays were big hits in London's regal West End houses. No way to escape it though, those plays do in the human condition. In them, Mother Dunbar's guts dangle for all to witness. All grown-up, Dunbar's real-life cast lodges inferno haste toward the woman who grew-up lowdown and shamelessly did everything to sabotage everybody near and dear. Despite her felonious exploits, the fact that Dunbar bares it all on paper achieves a pseudo confession. She's saying, "You don't have to love me. Hate me if you must. But don't doubt me."
Dunbar's fling with a Pakistani loaner produced a confused girl who searches for a place to belong. Her posthumous culpability is chronicled as her daughter Lorraine falls deep into drugs and prostitution. Cracked-up, Lorraine has her own kids whom she tosses for a fix or curses by passing on her addiction. Manjinder Virk portrays Lorraine but she's almost too wholesome, too physically flawless to be copping to these horrors. Her attributes offer a cuddly, bulletproof bedspread to tuck under while the verbal shelling resumes.
Take away all the devices and the truth doesn't just hurt in The Arbor—it juts and gores. Andrea Dunbar's portrait here is unforgiving; comparable to Joan Crawford in Mommy Dearest or Tobias Wolff's brass-knuckled dad in This Boy's Life. Sure, she amounted to something, but director Clio Barnard asks if the collateral costs are too high. Should audiences feel guilty for revering this woman's work without condemning the woman herself? She has blood on her hands, surely. It's impossible to separate the artist from the art with Dunbar, no matter how hard you try. She is her own judge, jury and executioner. The film pulls the electric chair switch and her blighted life flashes before our eyes.
Distributor: Strand Releasing
Cast: Christine Bottomley, Neil Dudgeon, Robert Emms, Natalie Gavin and Manjinder Virk
Director: Clio Barnard
Producer: Tracy O'Riordan
Running time: 94 min
Release date: April 27 NY