Playwright Andrea Dunbar’s sobering legacy.
Hot on the heels of David Peace’s Yorkshire fictions (recently given the big screen treatment in The Damned United and the excellent Red Riding Trilogy), The Arbor similarly blurs a line between reality and invention amidst the doldrums of a North England housing estate. Based on the life of Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar, the results are penetrating and undeniably moving. It’s also one of the finds of the New Zealand International Film Festival thus far. Revisting Brafferton Arbor, the unruly neighbourhood its subject drew inspiration from in a handful of plays before her death in 1990, the film ostensibly documents Dunbar’s troubled upbringing and success as a young writer—only 19 when The Arbor performed at London’s Royal Court, soon thereafter completing Rita, Sue and Bob Too which she would adapt for Alan Clarke’s biting 1987 comedy—yet is evidently more riveted by the perspective of her two surviving daughters, Lisa and Lorraine.
Lorraine, in particular, is the voice of some harrowing episodes, measuring her mother’s alcoholism and abusive relationships against her own traumatic experiences with addiction and domestic violence—all of which she bitterly, if not understandably, maintains to have inherited. While on the surface recalling the extreme working-class realism British cinema seems perpetually fixated by (or at least in 1998, the year we were pummeled by My Name is Joe, The War Zone and Nil By Mouth), Clio Barnard’s film doesn’t deny the humour in Dunbar’s otherwise bleak, semi-autobiographical portrait, allowing a lively performance of select scenes from The Arbor to unfold (on the doorstep of Brafferton residents, no less) amongst frank and devastating interviews with various friends and family members. If these confessions to the camera appear self-conscious in their delivery and cinematic style, it’s because they’re staged with actors lip-syncing pre-recordings—the film’s masterstroke in mirroring, and in the way crystalising, Dunbar’s own use of theatre to confront and approximate the ugly truth.