The film works between conventional documentary and fiction, revealing that art, usually presumed to bring order to chaos, has no such effect for the Dunbars.
"I've got loads of childhood memories, but none of 'em are really good. I don’t think you remember the good stuff." Lorraine Dunbar looks at the camera as she speaks, the room around her dark. Behind her, a bulletin board is papered with notes and cards, as blurry as the memories she doesn't quite have. Moments later, she looks out through a smudgy window and recalls, "Being in the house, mum out in the pubs, or mum comatosed in bed, and setting fire to the bedroom, to keep my brother and sister warm, 'cause it was cold."
It's a striking story to start The Arbor. But it's not actually a focus for Clio Barnard's film. It's more like a hint -- of the disorder that filled Lorraine's life, of the despair that shaped her character. The daughter of celebrated playwright Andrea Dunbar, Lorraine is here a sum of pieces: not only does she appear in a series of disconnected scenes, and not only are her memories incomplete, but she's also literally composite, as the actor Manjinder Virk lip-syncs the real Lorraine's audio recordings.
This extraordinary strategy situates the film in between conventional documentary and fiction, showing that art, usually presumed to bring order to chaos, has no such effect for the Dunbars. Indeed, Lorraine's experience here reflects and extends her mother's, increasingly confused and grim. Andrea's own art was famously surprising and also a function of her dreadful life growing up in a council housing estate in West Yorkshire. The teenaged Andrea, played by Natalie Gavin, occasionally enters the film to introduce several acts in her first play, also called The Arbor. Written when she was just 15 for a school assignment, it lays bare the pain of living with an alcoholic father in an unremittingly racist community, embodied vividly by her brother David (Robert Emms) -- who insists that he wasn't actually racist, just undone when a younger brother was killed in a car accident involving a "Paki."
In the film -- which opens at Film Forum 27 April (with a Q&A with Clio Barnard 6 May) -- several of the play's scenes are staged on a lawn at Andrea's old project. Chairs and a TV tilt on the grass, designating the living room that was exposed to view, as neighbors watch and whisper to one another. In an archival interview for a BBC Arena documentary, Andrea says the daily fights aren't "shocking" for people she knows. "I do have a few reactions," she says, "but I don’t think it's something to worry about."
Still, the film suggests it's hard for her -- and everyone else -- to grow up in such an impoverished and relentlessly ignorant environment. When Andrea becomes pregnant by her "Paki" boyfriend, Yousaf (Jimmy Mistry), she first defends him against David and her father's invective ("I'll smash the fucking black brains out of that fucking black head of yours"), and then leaves him, after he beats he and keeps her "tied with a rope." Filmed for a BBC Arena documentary as she pushes Lorraine in a stroller at a home for battered women, Andrea appears confident in her art. She went on to write two more plays, as well as a screenplay for one of them (Rita, Sue and Bob Too, directed by Alan Clarke), and had two more children, Lisa (Christine Bottomley) and Andrew (Matthew McNulty), with two other (white) men.
For all her efforts to write her way out, Andrea Dunbar remained confined by her memories and limits. Lorraine remembers pretending to be asleep one night when her mother stumbled home drunk, and peeped into her bedroom: "She just said that she regretted having me and she regretted sleeping with an Asian man, she couldn’t love me to the same level as Lisa and Andrew." Hurt and bewildered as a child, Lorraine can't forgive her mother's "very racist" confession: "You can't say you love two kids more than another." Andrea's drinking made her kids afraid, of course ("That's where I spent my childhood, in a pub," Lorraine says, over close-ups of a child's feet swinging from a pub chair and peanuts laid out on the table before her). When she died in 1990 at age 29, of a brain hemorrhage, they were sent to live with different relatives and neighbors.
From here, The Arbor's focus on Lorraine isn't precisely an attempt to understand how she came to be an addict herself, as well as a prostitute and young mother, or even how she was jailed for killing her own two-year-old son, Harris, with methadone. It does, however, reflect repeatedly on the intersections of memory and fiction, hopelessness and experience. Lisa -- who's pregnant throughout, though you don't learn her circumstance -- observes that Lorraine "were more or less blaming my mum for her being on drugs," and so unable to take responsibility for her own mistakes.
As if to illustrate, Lorraine appears again and again in doorframes and behind windows, on a stoop, in narrow hallways, and in a prison cell. At once elusive and confined, she articulates her pain and sees how she's hurt others, but she can't imagine what's beyond it. In rejecting a traditional reassurance in art, the film instead sorts out how disorder -- transgression, indefinition, and openness -- might lead to less artificial, more resonant effects.