Tuesday 12 October 2010

At the LFF: "The Arbor"

If the writer Andrea Dunbar is known at all today outside her native Bradford, it's for the play that provided the basis for Alan Clarke's Rita Sue and Bob Too, a piece of tatty 80s arcana from a once-serious director that bequeathed Black Lace's atrocious "Gang Bang" to the world. The artist Clio Barnard's Dunbar biopic The Arbor employs the device of having actors lipsynch to the recorded memories of the writer's nearest and dearest, an unnerving sight I seem to remember from a couple of old ad campaigns (in its form, what the film resembles most, if anything, is a live-action episode of Aardman's Creature Comforts), but which I think must be unprecedented on the big screen, with the possible exception of certain songs in musicals.

All this miming raises the question of interpretation - when Barnard comes to addressing Dunbar's theatrical career, we're offered the sight of actors lipsynching to the words of other actors - and blurs the line between fiction and reality in much the same way the subject's own plays did. The Arbor is both a document about Dunbar's life and a feature inspired by her accomplishments, although I use that last word guardedly, because her legacies were ambiguous, to say the least. Barnard is wholly honest about the writer's being a product of her environment - Dunbar ended up dead (of a brain haemorrhage, aged 29) in a pub toilet, after all. As a playwright, she conjured tangy, salty dialogue drawn from a close attention to the world around her; but as a mother, Dunbar's gifts were, shall we say, less obvious, as the mournful, depressive testimony of her mixed-race daughter Lorraine only goes to show.

Among the producers of The Arbor are Artangel, the collective whose projects typically centre on issues of place: it was they who commissioned Rachel Whiteread's "House", her plaster cast of the inside of an empty townhouse, and more recently Roger Hiorns' extraordinary "Seizure", which applied copper sulphate crystals to a disused council flat in Elephant and Castle, and arrived at something magical in one of South London's grimmer corners. Barnard's film, as with its inspiration, attempts no such alchemy: it plays out on scrappy estates where dogs, horses and single mothers roam free, and - like Dunbar's characters - is too busy searching for flickers of hope, reasons to live, to pin down much in the way of beauty.

Dunbar's most personal work, 1980's The Arbor - concerning a scrappy teenager (a forerunner to Mia in last year's Fish Tank) trying to cope with an alcoholic father, unexpected pregnancy, and having a Pakistani boyfriend in prime BNP territory - took its title from the road on which the young writer (then 15) lived. Barnard gives this play another airing by staging key scenes in the middle of the (now relatively gentrified) Braffington Arbor on Bradford's Buttershaw estate, a reminder - not least to the locals, who look on from the fringes - of the miserable lives that once played out here, just as the film is constructed as a monument of sorts to the writer who sprang from these parts.

Barnard's choices are bold - challenging, even. For a start, how do we discuss the lipsynchers' participation - as performers, or mere pose-throwers? If Danny Webb strikes one as too slight to embody Royal Court boss Max Stafford-Clark (one of Dunbar's champions) - the actor is better speaking his own lines as the bibulous pa in the restaged Arbor, where Natalie Gavin is a punchy standout as the heroine - it would be hard to imagine how Manjinder Virk could be any more expressive as the sorry-eyed Lorraine. She, perhaps, comes across as a more vivid presence than her own mother: a young woman who didn't get off the estate (where Andrea - through her words - did in a way), and ended up spiralling into crime, drugs, prostitution and repeated sexual abuse. (One of the film's grimmer conclusions is that Andrea may have been lucky to get out when she did - even if it was in the back of a mortician's van.)

And presence is the key word here, after all: we're dealing with spectres, half-humans, ghouls, developments arrested at a formative stage. Dead babies and abortions litter the biographical narrative; fruitless, squandered, wasted labours. Ole Birkeland's crisp photography - as it did in last year's art-cinema crossover Helen - lends a further uncanny edge to the kind of cramped and squashed domestic arrangements such have been an essential part of the British cinema, and of British theatre, over the past half-century. If the tale The Arbor tells is pure kitchen-sink (and thus slightly removed from the livelier idiom of Dunbar's own writing), it's a sink stained with blood, and with several vital components missing; one that has its own heavy, toxic psychic energy, sucking everyone around down the plughole.

No easy watch, then: with its disembodied voices, its inbuilt sense of channeling, this is a ghost story that appears to haunt each successive generation, not to mention all those it passes through, whether that means the actors Barnard has employed, or the audience looking on. Part of me thinks we really ought to look, however. Whether she herself grasped it or not, Dunbar was a fiercely oppositional writer, and her plays were as reflective and descriptive of the broken homes of Thatcher's Britain as Barnard's film is relevant to the child-welfare cuts that have come with Dave "Dave" Cameron's purportedly kinder Conservatism. It's a jolting experience, but it prompts you to remember that while our arbors and alleyways may look a good deal nicer these days, there is still much to be addressed behind closed doors.

The Arbor screens in NFT1 on Friday at 8.45pm, and on Monday at 1.15pm, before opening in selected cinemas from October 22.

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