Friday, 29 October 2010

'The Arbor' review:

In recent years British cinema has seemingly started to move on from the sort of poverty porn, "ain't life grim" aesthetic that typified past depictions of working class life. Films like 'Cemetery Junction' and, more recently, 'Made in Dagenham' have presented a more palatable and infinitely more hopeful picture of life at the bottom (although both look fondly backwards to the 70s and 60s respectively), whilst even the longtime stalwarts of British social realist cinema have taken a turn for what some might disparagingly term "the mainstream", with Ken Loach last year directing the feelgood 'Looking for Eric' and Mike Leigh increasingly turning his talent to films of great warmth and humanist goodwill. It would be tempting to think that we'd all forgotten how to peer through the net curtains, with tears of condescension in our eyes, at the plight of the nation's great unhosed.

Well fear not, because ably filling this void is Clio Barnard's 'The Arbor', which has just bagged itself a couple of prizes at the London Film Festival and opened in UK cinemas last Friday. 'The Arbor' is a grim watch indeed as it forms a sort of biography of the late Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar (writer of 'Rita, Sue and Bob Too!'), focusing on her strained relationship with her eldest daughter, the mixed-race Lorraine. The film goes beyond Dunbar's death from a brain hemorrhage in 1990, aged just 29, to look at how Lorraine became a heroin addict, a prostitute and, eventually, ended up in prison for allowing her son to die of "gross neglect". To tell this story, Barnard blends together a variety of techniques which include archive news footage, newly staged re-enactments of her first play, The Arbor, shot on location in the Brafferton Arbor area of Bradford (performed by actors, including Jimi Mistry) and, most startlingly, extracts of audio interviews with Dunbar's friends and family, dubbed over the performances of actors.

This latter technique is unorthodox, at least outside of Nick Park's 'Creature Comforts' series of animations - there used for comedy rather than drama - and has received mixed responses from critics, one of the most damning coming from The Guardian's David Cox. Personally, I found it distracting and sometimes even comical, which undermined the films very earnest approach and heavy subject matter. Many of the voices really don't work with the actors, the most obvious being Dunbar's younger daughter Lisa played by Christine Bottomley. The real life Lisa's voice, which is deep and slightly gruff Yorkshire accent, doesn't convincingly come from the mouth of the pretty, youthful looking actress. But such is the undeniable raw emotional power of some of the testimony - specifically regarding the death of Lorraine's child - that some of the film works in spite of this clunky device.

What I can't help but wonder though is this: what is the point of it all? We find out that behind Dunbar's broadsheet friendly persona as "a genius straight from the slums" she was perhaps a less than wonderful mother, by Lorraine's account at least. We also hear how she spent the majority of her time in the local pub, never moving away from the people and the area she immortalised in her stage plays. But does this look at the real life Dunbar and her offspring shed new light on her plays? And does this unusual, experimental device do the story any greater service than a traditional documentary or completely dramatised film might have otherwise done? I tend to doubt it. By straddling the line between documentary and drama, the film functions as neither. Nor does that film try to hard to draw any parallels between the Arbor of thirty years ago and the street as it is today. We see some footage of children playing football in a park, but nothing revealing.

This is not to say, however, that 'The Arbor' is a total failure. After all, it is daring and experimental in a way few films can boast (especially British films) and it is hard to take against that too strongly. For me though, the film is devoid of any real point, other than to take us on yet another grim poverty safari. It is another film about the poor intended to be consumed by chin-stroking liberals, who more often than not frown on the more accessible films enjoyed by the very people they patronise. Honestly, it is as if Preston Sturges never made 'Sullivan's Travels'.

With the demise of the UKFC, and the latest cuts to the budget of the Arts Council and the BFI, it could well be that British cinema makes a return to these sorts of grim portrayals of life for the working poor - low budget films made in a climate devoid of that initial wave of New Labour optimism. I have no problem with seeing those sorts of films at all. I just hope they have a bit more to offer than 'The Arbor'.

'The Arbor' is out in the UK now on a limited release and is rated '15' by the BBFC.

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