Friday, August 26, 2011

The Arbor (Clio Barnard, 2011)

For the first five minutes of The Arbor, I assumed that one of the two actresses appearing on-screen was the subject of the movie, Andrea Dunbar, the late UK playwright. But after they detailed the abuses and neglect they suffered in their dingy household, I was horrified to learn that the two characters (I'm not sure if that's the right word, as I'll explain shortly) were Dunbar's daughters, that the tyrannical specter of a drunken, uncaring mother, a stereotypical artistic motivator for the downtrodden yet ambitious, was the artist herself. That realization, even more so than the film's adventurous presentation, kept me riveted for the remaining 90 minutes.

Told through reenactments with actors lip-synching to taped interviews of relatives, neighbors and friends, The Arbor initially seems an arty take on the documentary, a cute gimmick to make the movie stand out among the pack. But Clio Barnard's film proves original not merely in its staging but in the structure of its drama. This is a biography, but one that explores the far-reaching consequences of Andrea's all too brief life and the social significance of her family story. Barnard reaches her death less than halfway into the film, leaving the remaining time to sift through the lives of those she left behind, in the process delving into the perpetuating cycle of the same social ills that Dunbar documented in her realist writing.

In fact, the film's central subject could easily be not Dunbar herself but her daughter, Lorraine (Manjinder Virk). Our first concept of Andrea comes not from the archival footage collected for the movie but in Lorraine's bitter recollections, memories of her mother's alcoholism and blindness to the sexual abuse the girl endured from relatives. We also hear the second daughter, Lisa (Christine Bottomley), chime in, her perspective more optimistic; where she defends Andrea, Lorraine flatly admits that there are some things her mother did she would never forgive. By starting with these conflicting takes, Barnard humanizes his kitchen-sink documentary even as he also sidesteps objective details for gruesome remembrances.

To get at Andrea's life, Barnard mixes the old footage of the real Andrea with acted-out selections of her plays, which drew heavily upon her life in run-down estates. These readings are brilliant, not merely for the staging, which draws upon Dunbar's style (constantly onlooking residents, stagey recreations like some car seats standing in for the full vehicle), but the sheer power of Dunbar's words. She wrote her first play, for which the film is named, at 15, but her gift for capturing the world around her was instantly evident. No line appears to exist between Dunbar's plays and her life, playing out the personal dramas of an alcoholic father, teen pregnancy and the aimlessness of ignored youth through the words that never managed to get Dunbar out of that life.

When the film shifts to focus chiefly on Lorraine after handling Dunbar's death from a brain hemorrhage at 29, one almost gets the sense that the film has restarted. Lorraine, who so deeply despises her mother for her alcoholism, torment and neglect (one can even view her death as the ultimate show of the latter), falls into a life that mirrors her mother's to a disturbing degree. Substance abuse, early motherhood, extreme neglect, all of these become traits for Lorraine just as they did her mother. Both mother and daughter met men who seemed so nice in company but turned into psychotics behind closed doors. But if Andrea carried around the scars from her father, Lorraine's issues are exacerbated by the isolation she felt has a mixed-race child in a racist community, prejudice endured even from her own mother. The real Lorraine speaks like a shellshocked veteran, and Virk conveys her hollow, haunted readings with facial language just animated enough to be heartbreaking in its resignation. Her story dips into unspeakable horrors, but Lorraine pushes on, so ravaged by them that she can no longer even express fear of them. But that tone also suggests an obliviousness to how much she shares with her hated mother, something Lisa subtly establishes in her own interviews.

Indeed, the role of perspective in this film is key. Youssef, the Pakistani who dates and impregnates Andrea, is so nice that even the racist community comes to somewhat accept him. Then, we hear of him trying to force her to get an abortion and considering ways to make her miscarry, and news of his physical abuse changes the view of this nice young man. But when he visits Lorraine one time and one time only, she is left with the memory of a pleasant day dancing in Middle Eastern clothes before returning to the prison of her mother's home. Lorraine speaks of her mother's scarring effects, but Lisa suggests that her sister misses their mom in some strange way, a naïve statement that nevertheless might hold some truth.

Barnard ties all this together with impeccable casting and direction. His camera glides with eerie precision over images of estate life, and at times The Arbor almost feels like a Resnais film. He links past and present with repeat shots that show the positive passage of time: littered fields of the past become cleaner, more communal areas in the present, while the scratched, hardwood stairs of the old Dunbar residence now has soft green carpet. The actors are so invested in their physical performances that I had to remind myself they weren't actually speaking the lines. The actors even insert tics, such as "Lorraine" averting her eyes slightly when she reaches her darkest confessions and "Ann," a kind neighbor who eventually becomes Lorraine's foster parent with her husband Steve, fiddling with a necklace.

A bleak movie, to be sure, The Arbor nevertheless finds hard-won determination in its accounts of personal and social abandonment. One can hear people light up in interviews when they remember acts of kindness that made everything better, even if just for a moment, and the graceful final shot shows community emerging from these areas of loner poverty. With the recent riots in England, uprisings of confused, angry teens at once directly responsible for their own actions and the products of social conditions, The Arbor is even more poignant: blame is exchanged, whether thrown at the system or amoral youths, but the film takes care to show that nothing is ever as simple as it seems, and even in its darkest moments, it always allows for hope.

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