Any discussion of The Arbor has to begin with an explication of the hyper-meta format that’s been devised by director Clio Barnard.
In revisiting the life and early death of British playwright Andrea Dunbar, Barnard recorded audio testimony from Dunbar’s adult children and other relatives, then had actors lip sync to the dialogue while performing as those real-life figures. What’s more, Barnard also stages scenes from Dunbar’s plays on the actual grounds of the public-housing estate where she lived.
Dunbar dealt in devastating material – a sickening cycle of poverty, neglect, abuse and alcoholism – and so the crucial question is: to what degree does Barnard’s tinkering detract or enhance the story’s terrible truths?
On the one hand, the distance provided by the technique is a relief. Perhaps it also allowed Barnard greater access; Dunbar’s children may have spoken more freely knowing their faces wouldn’t be on the screen.
Yet I also wonder if it also compromises the story in some way. The technique suggests that Barnard either doesn’t trust the actor’s voices or doesn’t trust the real-life figures’ faces. There’s a disconnect here that the movie never fully overcomes.
Nevertheless, this is riveting stuff, all the more so since it’s “real.” In its own artful way, The Arbor forces us to confront the awfulness that is born of poverty and despair.