In The Arbor, first time director Clio Barnard (she does have a few shorts in her past oeuvre) has created a strangely alluring mélange of cinematic ideas. Being the story of English playwright Andrea Dunbar, who grew up in the slums of Yorkshire, had three children to three different fathers, was an alcoholic and died of a (most-likely) alcohol-induced brain hemorrhage at the age of 27, Barnard has decided to forego the typical biopic wheelhouse and instead has chosen to go about it in (somewhat) radical freeform. What we get is a blend of actors lip-synching to the prerecorded words of Dunbar's friends and family, the playwright's title play (one of just three she completed in a truncated life) being acted out al fresco and a la Brecht and actual documentary footage from the 1980's as well as excerpts from Alan Clarke's film adaptation of Dunbar's Rita, Sue and Bob Too!.
What Barnard has created is a sort of creative non-fiction work of documentary art. Distancing her audience from the plight of both Dunbar and her two daughters - portrayed remarkably by Manjinder Verk and Christine Bottomley - by using these different techniques (the use of lip-synch makes for an especially eerie, dislocated feeling) we are forced to almost seemingly interact with the characters on the screen - made all the more haunting by realizing these are real people behind these actor's moving lips. Taking on also how her eldest daughter, who is half-Pakistani (a recurring racial hatred is put forth, even in her own mother's words), has followed in her mother's footsteps as an alcoholic and drug addict (doing several stints in prison) and as un unwed teenage mother, Barnard's film/doc/art installation reaches well beyond the typical tales of woebegone and formulates a stunning and often harrowing (one scene late in the film is tragedy tenfold) and quite unique look at a person's life and how they, through their selfish actions, have influenced the lives of others.
Taking a cue from Ken Loach and the Kitchen Sink movement in British cinema, Barnard gives us the utter despair of lower class Britons without ever making us feel as if we are being pandered to or being cheated out of something (a thing many a mainstream movie cannot attest to doing - or even trying). The Arbor is a fascinating film to watch as it brusquely bops its way back and forth between Brechtian play, archival footage and actor's bodily portrayals. One would be hesitant to use a word as ordinary and as cliche'd as haunting or as pretentious as evocative, but one would be hard-pressed to come up with another word as succinctly simple and yet as nail-on-the-head as such. This daring experimentation in cinematic tropes and storytelling techniques (which made its debut at Tribeca last year and would receive five British Independent Film Award nominations) not only makes for a quite dazzling movie experience but also makes one anxious to see just what Ms. Barnard will come up with next. [06/02/11]