The Arbor

Just back from seeing ‘The Arbor’ at the IFI. I would recommend it strongly, but to define its appeal is to allow something to slip from my grasp, something intangible, which in fact makes it so compelling. Okay, the Brechtian distancing thing was maybe a little heavy-handed, and at times it lapsed into cliché, but at the same time was extremely forceful as an exercise.

It tells the story of the playwright Andrea Dunbar, by all accounts an intelligent and brutal collector of the events that would shape her gritty, kitchen-sink works. She wrote her first play at just fifteen, saw its premier at eighteen, and died tragically from a suspected brain haemorrhage at the age of twenty-nine. In a local pub, of which her daughter Lorraine says that she basically died at home. A chronic alcoholic, the film pieces together her life, and its interminable influence on her three children, through the use of a series of interviews, cut with staged acting-outs of her works. The interviews, though using the audio footage of people who actually knew Andrea, are combined with the visual footage of actors lip-synching their words. This creates an uncanny effect; every so often the actor comes in too late and fails to recoup the pace of the audio. This has the unusual effect of distancing, not only the visual from the audio, but the person from their words. The words hang heavy on the air, the physical entity before us on the screen rendered almost secondary. Also, the characters don’t behave like people being interviewed: no nervous habits, no awkward avoidance of gaze: they face us straight on and move about too smoothly and purposefully. They become estranged from us, the director Clio Barnard consciously negating the movement of empathy in what all too easily could have become something tragic, and just that.

That’s not to say that it isn’t tragic. Along with the short film that directly preceded it, it’s certainly up there in terms of the sheer scale of human calamity. But it could have been just that, I suppose. Anyway, definitely worth a look.

Here’s the trailer.

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