The Arbor (2010)

Having grown up in West Yorkshire in England myself, I was excited about seeing a film based there. The Arbor is set in Bradford West Yorkshire where the playwright Andrea Dunbar grew up; brought up her children and where she tragically died at the young age of 29. The setting is  important as it is where Andrea drew her inspiration from and the destitute surroundings undoubtedly affected how her children turned out, most notably Lorainne, who became famous herself as a result of a personal tragedy that hit the headlines a few years ago.

The film is very original in style and and uses various techniques to tell the story of Andrea Dunbar and her family. It is partly documentary, and partly performances from actors.  As the film starts, the audience are told “This is a true strory filmed with actors lip-syncing to the voices of the people whose story it tells.” This experimental technique might sound distracting, but since the actors are all relatively unknown, it’s actually not that obvious they are lip-syncing. The actors go about what we assume to be the daily  routines of the characters they are playing. For example, there are a lot of scenes in kitchens whilst the actors are having cups of tea, or living rooms with the actors sat on couches. The actress lip-syncing to Lorraine is in a less domestic setting as her daily routine takes place in  prison. This prepares the audiences for Lorraine’s story as they await to find out why she is in prison.

There are also re-enactments in The Arbor of scenes from Andrea Dunbar’s famous plays, so viewers who have not heard of the playwright get a chance to see what her plays were about. Andrea’s plays were largely drawn from her own experiences of  family life and of growing up in the Buttershaw Estate of Bradford. These re-enactments help understand why Andrea became the person she did and how her own experiences impacted on how she brought up her children. It is suggested very early on that Andrea was lacking in parenting skills and thought locking her children in a room overnight was acceptable. The play scenes help us to understand Andrea’s actions. They are gritty, full of swearing and violence. Andrea brought her kids up in much the same way she had been raised, surrounded by violence, verbal abuse, and left largely to their own devices. There is an air of authenticity and reality to these play scenes as they are acted out around the Bradford area. There is a sense that the events, and arguments portrayed in these scenes were things that Andrea either went though herself or heard about whilst growing up in the area.

It is never revealed why Andrea did not move away from the problem stricken area of The Buttershaw Estate when she became successful. Although the plays didn’t exactly make her rich, it seems likely she could have afforded to move to a nicer area, and it begs the question ‘why didn’t she?’ I can only guess. Perhaps she needed the support of her family, or perhaps the close knit community institutionalizes the people that grow up there.  There is definitely an almost claustrophobic sense of community to the area, and you get the impression that everyone knows everybody else’s business.

Andrea’s death is covered early in The Arbor and it becomes apparent the movie is more about Andrea’s eldest daughter Lorraine. Lorraine’s life spiralled out of control following her mother’s death and she hit the news a few years ago in tragic circumstances when her young son died from a drug overdose whilst in her care. The Arbor covers Lorraine’s childhood, her teenage years,  the circumstances that lead to her child’s death, and her prison sentence and release.  Where Andrea turned to writing, men, and alcohol,  Lorraine in contrast, is surrounded by drugs and soon becomes an addict, and later a prostitute, to feed her drug addiction. Although Lorainne is clearly bitter about the way Andrea brought her up, she does no better bringing up her own children. It is possible Lorainne is using her mother as a scapegoat to avoid having to blame herself for the mistakes she has made.  In contrast to Lorraine, Andrea’s other children remember their mother fondly and seem quite grounded. They accept that their childhoods weren’t perfect but they hold no grudges. This suggests Andrea’s deficiencies as a parent cannot have been solely responsible for Lorraine’s carwreck life.

The Arbor is a harrowing film that feels very authentic and true to events. The various storytelling devices and the different opinions that are given from the people that knew Andrea and Lorraine allow the viewer to make their own conclusions about the reasons behind the tragic events described. There is no one single opinion pushed forward, but instead a number of possibilities are given which could have helped lead to the tragic events.  The Arbor successfully looks at social problems within the community of Bradford and how the problems have expanded and changed over time.  From the problems of domestic violence and early pregnancies during Andrea’s youth, to the drugs and prostitution which are rife in the area now.

Dir: Clio Barnard

rating: 8

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