Posted by: greercn | November 24, 2010

The Arbor

It’s harrowing, demanding and utterly engaging. You will think deeply about uncomfortable parts of family life. Without a doubt, it’s the best film I have seen in 2010. More real and searching questions are posed here – in a brief 94 minutes that whizzes by – than in most philosophy books.

It’s a stunning and very British class act, that zeroes in on why achievement and families matter. It is profoundly uncomfortable and grabs you by the throat and heart from the first scene.

If you know anything about playwright Andrea Dunbar’s short and difficult life,  you’ll learn more. If you know nothing, you will still experience something utterly different in Clio Barnard’s tour de force film. Barnard is from Bradford and brings love and insight to filming on her home turf.

Dunbar wrote an astonishing play about falling in love with a Pakistani man on the Buttershaw estate in Bradford, Yorkshire. It’s called “The Arbor”, for Brafferton Arbor, the street on which she grew up.

She described the racist reactions of friends and neighbours in uncomfortable detail. Her writing was sufficiently succinct and articulate that the play she wrote as a schoolgirl was put on by Max Stafford-Clark at the Royal Court Theatre in London. She won a heap of awards for it and had a BBC Arena documentary made about her before she turned 20.

By 29, she was dead of a cerebral haemorrhage, slipping out of consciousness at her pub. She was a drinker and had three children by three men, the eldest of whom was mixed-race at a time when being half-Pakistani led to the child being bullied.

The movie is not a bio-pic. It slips in and out of the lives of Dunbar and her three children. Actors lip-sync the words of the participants. This enhances the disjointed narrative without commenting on the class expectations.

The film tells a fiercely-proud story of being working class in good and bad times. It is provocative. Curiously, “Rita, Sue and Bob, Too”, about a married man having sex with both babysitters of his children, is described and excerpted, while the extraordinary “Shirley” is overlooked.

Dunbar had to write, as so many brilliant writers say they do. It didn’t bring her much joy. She was one of many children of textile workers and left a legacy of astonishing writing and three orphaned children.

The acting choices are interesting.  George Costigan played Bob in “Rita” and is in another role here.  Manjinder Virk plays Lorraine, Dunbar’s eldest daughter. Lisa, Andrea’s middle child, is played by Christine Bottomley. The most recognisable actor is Jimi Mistry, playing Lorraine’s father.

There are many scenes that will linger. Dunbar’s family being bewildered at her fierce talent is one. Lorraine discussing her life, in her own words, forms many sections of this.   Monica Dolan and Neil Dudgeon are really interesting foils to the main characters as foster parents and neighbours.

If it gets to an American release, it will be loved, but it will need subtitles. I undeerstood, but I am good with accents. I am curious about why Brafferton Arbor has an American spelling for “arbour”. Hopefully, one of my readers will explain this to me.

It was a one-off showing for Stratford Picture House and it really deserves a wide audience. The whole room stayed absolutely silent and everyone was discussing it afterwards.

Curious that I saw this in a week in which I saw another excellent but provocative 25-minute film titled “Telepathy 101” by experimental unit Patricide. Many in that audience hated it, but I adored it.

Go see “The Arbor”. Unique film-making – especially with a thoughtful and British regional voice – needs to be celebrated.



  1. Arbor is also a sort of tool. Look at the road on Google maps (there’s only one of them): it’s an unusual shape. Wonder if that’s what an arbor looks like in a Bradford factory? Pure random speculation; I really should be getting on with some work!

    • That’s really clever. It makes sense and didn’t occur to me. Doh, as Homer Simpson would say. Thank you for the enlightenment.

      • Are these helpful comments from my friends via email? “The Arbor” has that spelling because:
        a) Bradford Council can’t/couldn’t spell
        b) An American architect did not know British (Burtish?) spellings were different
        c) Yorkshire was under American occupation (silly, but funny)
        I am going with Pete’s explanation which is elegant and appropriate. Do keep the explanations coming in. I am enjoying them, even when they are outlandish. Also, lobby your cinema to show “The Arbor” because it is truly excellent and different. Manjinder Virk’s performance as Andrea Dunbar’s daughter is affecting and brilliant and is haunting me, in a really good way.

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