6 out of 10

Release Date: 3rd November 2010

Director: Clio Barnard (The Selfish Giant)

Cast: Natalie Gavin, Jimi Mistry, Danny Webb, Christine Bottomley, Manjinder Virk, Monica Dolan, Matthew McNulty, Kathryn Pogson, Kate Rutter with Neil Dudgeon and George Costigan

Writer: Andrea Dunbar / Cast / Interviewees

Trailer: THE ARBOR

Anyone for a bit of cinematic ventriloquism? Well that’s the device that’s being used to recount the fascinating short life of Yorkshire playwright, Andrea Dunbar (NATALIE GAVIN – SHAMELESS) here.  Actors have been employed to dramatise, actual vocal recordings from interviews with the Dunbars, friends and acquaintances.  Expanding on a method used to keep jurors and members of the court awake, actors mouth the words and in many cases re-enact / dramatise events as envisaged in testimonies. I’m told this is called Verbatim Theatre. Applying this experimental approach quite brilliantly is an astonishing risk pulled off by the filmmakers.  It’s only in the later stages of the film when we focus on the story of a survivor that I became restless and interest waned.

Andrea Dunbar was a prolific early 80’s playwright from a rough part of Bradford known as The Arbor.  Portrayed in the interviews as a neglectful, alcoholic who used to write her plays on the back step whilst her kids went wild, she got wide acclaim for The Arbor and to a far larger degree, Rita – Sue and Bob Too.  She died aged 29, from a brain haemorrhage after a drinking session. The story goes on to include those of her children and grand children, specifically Lorraine (MANJINDER VIRK) who fell foul of drug abuse and racism for having a Pakistani father, Yousaf (JIMI MISTRY – BASEMENT).  At every turn and with every new person interviewed you see the mess that has been left behind.  How much of it is Dunbar’s fault is down to where you sit on the “nature or nuture” debate. It’s a mess and sad waste of life though that happens all too often in cities across the country.  The spotlight gets shone here though because of  Dunbar’s talent and her plays with their wicked and witty written portrayals of the people around her.

Sections of her plays are dramatised on open sets on the green at the centre of The Arbor.  Estate residents look-on from a distance and it does give the film a spooky air.  You feel as if Dunbar herself could be watching from one of the windows surrounding the square.  The cast of familiar faces including Danny Webb (ALIEN 3), Neil Dudgeon (MIDSOMER MURDERS), Christine Bottomley (STRAWBERRY FIELDS), are called upon to experiment with this unusual form of acting and it’s actually fair to say that The Arbor is a groundbreaking take on the documentary format.  It does eventually  drain the concentration and I did begin to wonder if it works in long stretches.  Questions are raised about the reasoning behind it other than aesthetics.  There’s no question that it works effectively over a certain period, but is it an improvement on the standard talking heads approach?  In this “attention deficit” blighted society I would say that it would bring a certain element in that doesn’t usually watch documentaries.  It’s certainly a brilliant attempt at documentaries and non fictional dramas meeting half-way.  In these circumstances The Arbor is a success.

6 out of 10 – Not exactly my cup of tea, but it is a new approach to filmmaking that takes a bit of getting used to.  Andrea Dunbar‘s life is a brilliant subject, so the device doesn’t distract.  A lesser subject may test its limits.  So its hard to recommend to all but the most intrepid film viewer but it’s very easy to appreciate and admire.  An involving subject.



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