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BFI London Film Festival Review: The Arbor

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by Jack Gregson
Score:  2.5/4 

Directed by Clio Barnard
Starring Manjinder Virik, Neil Dudgeon, Monica Dolan & Jimi Mistry

Knowing nothing of the plays written by Andrea Dunbar, I had no idea what to expect from The Arbor. The film is a docu-drama focusing on the family of the British working class playwright (author of “The Arbor” and “Rita, Sue & Bob Too”), it uses a unique style in which all the actors are simply lip synching to interviews held with the actual figures giving the film some dramatic gravitas. This technique is interesting (though every now and then the lip synch goes wrong and it completely takes you out of the movie), yet why they didn’t decide to add some more action into the scenes rather than just have the actors look at the camera and read the lines as if they were just giving an interview is beyond me.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TyNqRdM0Y4g[/youtube]

A major problem with the movie is how much depression can one person take? The lives shown in this film are incredibly sad and one wishes that Dunbar had lived longer and had done more with her writing to pull her family out of the slums of Northern England, sadly she didn’t and we are forced to see the awful lives her children led (including her eldest daughter who was arrested for manslaughter after getting her two year old baby addicted to heroin). The film is 94 minutes long and Dunbar’s death is dealt with at the half way mark, the film could have ended there in this critic’s opinion. It just seems to drag on after a while with no relief, which is a shame because from what I can tell from Dunbar’s work, she always displayed her life in a satirical light.

One of the more interesting aspects of the film included various extracts from the play “The Arbor” being performed in public to mirror along with Andrea’s life, it did bring some interesting dramatic elements to the film and eased the flow of the interviews. Sadly after Andrea dies, these scenes begin to show up less and less to the point when you nearly forget all about them until the end of the picture. The work put into make this documentary stand out from other recent interview fests is highly commendable and I hope it brings in a new wave of documentary style.

The film can be very good when it finds a meaty subject to show on the screen but sadly it fails to always find a true hook with its story, though I do urge my American readers to search this film out as it does show a version of England that is rarely shown in media today, the lower class (we call them “chavs” over here, I guess they’d be an equivalent to a hillbilly). If you are interested in British culture than definitely search this one out. A strong movie with interesting and artistic ideas, but sometimes struggles to keep the audience member gripped.

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By Dave Minkus

Dave is located in Denver, CO and can also be found occasionally sullying various podcasts who don't know better than to invite him on. He also works with the team behind the Reel Heroes Filmmaker Series at Denver Comic Con.

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