Sunday, May 1, 2011

Clio Barnard's multi-dimensional portrait of a very odd artist & her family: THE ARBOR

So much has already been written, here and abroad, about THE ARBOR -- its dialog taken from transcribed inter-views and then lip-synced by some very good actors -- telling of the later life of "projects" play-wright Andrea Dunbar. It's odd to use the term later, as Dunbar lived only to 29, felled simultane-ously by her alcohol-ism and a brain hemorrhage. The film, directed by Clio Barnard (shown below), has a documentary look and feel, though when the actress playing Dunbar sets about rehearsing various scenes from her original play, al fresco, for any audience imagining a documentary, the jig is up.

Yet so real are the words spoken here (and why not, since they were indeed voiced by all the "real" people interviewed?) and so very good are all the actors who must lip-sync these words that, did we not know how the movie was made, I swear we would be completely unaware of the lip-syncing. Perhaps Britishers were more aware of this because they did not have to take their eyes away from the faces on view in order to read the English subtitles (provided for the film's U.S. release to help us Americans with the heavy and various British accents). Whatever: So gripping are these actors and what they have to say, that we watch (and listen to) performances that seem utterly full and real.

The Arbor is is finally as much about Andrea's mixed-race daughter Lorraine -- above, played by Manjinder Virk, who was sired by the playwright's Pakistani lover Yousaf, played in interesting, subdued fashion by Jimi Mistry (below, left), the only  "famous" actor in the lot -- as it is about Andrea herself (she's played by Natalie Gavin, below, right). While we see and hear the young playwright, we don't get much inside her the way we do Lorraine, whose story provides the most compelling parts of the film, allowing us to see the cyclical nature of poverty, racism and class in a manner stronger than most movies usually present.

The layers of artifice and reality on view soon begin to combine into their own distinctive mix. This is yet another film that merges documentary and narrative to arrive at something as real, in its way, as anything in either of the two standard formats. When Andrea dies fairly early on, Lorraine tells us, with barely a trace of emotion in her voice or bearing: "That's it. It's over. Things can only get better." As if. We haven't begun to see the extent of how bad things can get.

The film may finally have you wondering if "artists" should be allowed to have children. Or in this case, alcoholic artists. The results move from Lorraine and her half-sister (played by Christine Bottomley, above)   to the next  generation and a young boy whose story gives the film its most uplifting (and despairing) moments. Thanks to the ever-present subtitles, The Arbor is not a difficult film to get one's mind around. For an intelligent audience, it does not that much "work." It raises a raft of question about how to handle race, class and poverty but offers no easy answer, other than personal responsibility. And that, given these particular circumstances, brings us full circle, only to begin again.

The film, from Strand Releasing, plays currently in New York City at Film Forum through Tuesday, May 10. Click here for dates and times, listed at top. Also screening during this period is the 1986 film Rita Sue and Bob, Too!  (photo at right) made from Dunbar's play of the same name. Click here and scroll down to the bottom of the screen to see play dates for this earlier movie. I should think this film will find its way into other art houses across the country, but as of now, I can find no word of where.

IN PERSON! Filmmaker Clio Barnard and Actress Manjinder Virk will appear at Film Forum on Friday, May 6, at the 8pm show.

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