Film: Arbor Vitae of Knowledge


Title: The Arbor


Director: Clio Barnard

Starring: Christine Bottomley, George Costigan, Andrea Dunbar

Release Date: Out now

Clio Barnard’s quasi-documentary, The Arbor, is a chilling film, charting the life and legacy of British playwright Andrea Dunbar. In a groundbreaking documentative form, Barnard seamlessly connects Dunbar’s prodigious potential with her inability to break out of the impoverished and destitute life, which had formed the content of her writing.

A talented and acclaimed writer, Dunbar, who was noted most famously for her play Rita, Sue and Bob Too, had her life tragically cut short at age 29, after collapsing in her local pub from a brain haemorrhage. She left behind a disturbed and destructive daughter who would go on to replay Dunbar’s tragic existence.

The Arbor (also the title of Dunbar’s first play), charts Dunbar’s life, which was wrought with abuse and alcoholism, by interviewing those closest to her. Barnard has given her documentary a haunting twist by having actors lip-synch to the audio of the interviews, interspersed with scenes from The Arbor, combining fact and fiction in a new and harrowing manner.

The disturbing acts inflicted by and against Dunbar are eerily portrayed, as we delve into the upsetting world of the infamous Buttershaw estate where Dunbar grew up. Dunbar’s three children provide the greatest insight into her life, and her first child, Lorraine, proves to add even more tragedy to the already distressing film.

Lorraine, who seems to have suffered the most abuse under the hands of her mother, descends into a life of drugs and prostitution after Dunbar’s death. Lorraine is forced to examine the parallels of her mother’s life and her own, through TV footage and Dunbar’s old letters over the course of the documentary.

Barnard’s film is as much about the life of Andrea Dunbar as it is about the social injustices in question, which are as potent today as they were 30 years ago. The vicious cycle Lorraine enters, similar to her mother, of violence and abuse are difficult concepts to absorb; however through Barnard’s intuitive methods, the resonance is fully felt.

One cannot help being left with a feeling of unease and injustice after watching The Arbor. Domestic abuse, drug addiction, prostitution and death are harrowing themes enough by themselves, however Barnard’s film combines all of them detailing the horrific life Dunbar and her children faced.

This film is a magnificent and intuitive meditation on documentary, adopting new and overwhelmingly effective methods to fully hit home the real experiences of life on the Buttershaw estate. It is certainly not for those looking for a cheerful comedy, it is however, a film that deals with a host of difficult topics and real-life tragedies in a respectful and effective manner, which is certainly no small feat.

It is a haunting tribute to the tragic life of Dunbar, who never managed to escape her life on a council estate. The overall experience amounts to an unmissable movie both for its employment of new and intuitive modes of documentary making, and its thought-provoking and moving content.

– Anna Burzlaff