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Play by Ear

The Arbor (2010)

54th BFI London Film Festival

About the late British playwright Andrea Dunbar’s turbulent life in a working-class housing project, Clio Barnard’s “The Arbor” is an unprecedented documentary told almost entirely through reenactments instead of conventional routes such as a dramatized biopic or an adaptation of Dunbar’s semi-autobiographical play.

Centered on an adolescent girl grappling with her pregnancy, her abusive alcoholic father and her East Indian boyfriend in an intolerant Yorkshire neighborhood, the teenage Dunbar’s play, “The Arbor,” premiered in London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1980 and garnered notice for the uncompromising realism with which it depicted England’s underbelly. Through glimpses of archival news footage, though, we learn that no amount of success or critical acclaim could make up for a lack of parental attention and approval. The budding playwright drank herself to death 10 years later, leaving behind three plays and three children fathered by different men.

Ms. Barnard extensively interviews Dunbar’s kids, friends and neighbors while staging scenes from her first play outdoors in the Brafferton Arbor neighborhood with local residents in the audience bearing witness. But instead of a parade of talking heads, Ms. Barnard employs professional actors lip-syncing and performing to the interviews. The film creates an interesting milieu in which theatricality often undercuts reality, and vise versa.

Despite its heightened sense of staginess to suggest the blurred line between life and drama, Ms. Barnard’s “The Arbor” ultimately proves devastating when it establishes parallels between the lives of Dunbar and her biracial eldest child, Lorraine, with actress Manjinder Virk earnestly standing in. As the film gradually reveals Lorraine’s tragic fate, Ms. Barnard illustrates in heartbreaking fashion how the cycle of familial neglect, low self-esteem and self destruction completely ruined lives that were once so full of promise. Dunbar was a prodigy, but even she had something to learn from the moral of her own story.


Opens on Oct. 22 in Britain and on April 27, 2011 in New York.

Written and directed by Clio Barnard; director of photography, Ole Bratt Birkeland; edited by Nick Fenton and Daniel Goddard; music by Harry Escott and Molly Nyman; production design by Matthew Button; costumes by Matthew Price; produced by Tracy O’Riordan; released by Verve Pictures (Britain) and Strand Releasing (United States). In strong Yorkshire dialect, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes. This film is not rated by M.P.A.A. and rated 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Christine Bottomley (Lisa), Neil Dudgeon (Steve), Robert Emms (David Dunbar), Natalie Gavin (Andrea Dunbar), Jimmy Mistry (Yousaf ) and Manjinder Virk (Lorraine).


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