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Sunday, November 14, 2010


Mumview: The Arbor

My local-ish cinema features a wonderful attraction: The Big Scream. This means that every Friday at 11am, they screen one or two films that are open only to parents with children under one, thus allowing mothers to get out of the house and see movies, and hopefully allowing other moviegoers to watch films without 'waah' in their ears all the time.

I think I'll be going to this quite a bit. And with that in mind, I'm going to try my hand at reviewing. The limited options mean that I may end up seeing films I wouldn't normally attend, which ought to broaden my mind; I shall try to snatch moments in which to write up my findings: film reviews through the eyes of a new mother. To make things easier for me, given the erratic circumstances under which I'm reviewing, I shall be breaking things up into categories.

Not all of which will be conventional. Watching with a baby on your lap places a particular demand on a film - or rather, it raises a question: how does it compete for your attention, and how easy to follow is it when you may have to look away and shush a crying infant? That may not be a consideration for everyone, but I think it actually tells you rather a lot about a film. Watching With Mother, or rather Watching With Your Mother Hat On, means you look at a film through rather brisk eyes.

So there will be five categories. The first will be a quick summary, which is pretty self-explanatory. The second discusses the film. Watching films you picked from limited options means you have to take them on their own terms, so the question is 'Does it work the way it should?' - ie, for this kind of film, is it a good example. Because I won't necessarily have known much about the film going in - again, the Brixton Ritzy kind of picks my films for me these days - I'll also be including a section called 'Ready for this?', which is about how informed or ignorant a viewer I was, and how this affected the viewing experience. Then there's 'Life amongst the groundlings' - how well the film worked amid the distracting circumstances. And finally, a brief summary of whether it's any good, because I gather reviews are supposed to tell you that...

I've seen two films so far, The Arbor and Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. I shall begin with the one I saw first, The Arbor.

Mumview: The Arbor

Quick summary

The playwright Andrea Dunbar, best known for her screenplay Rita, Sue and Bob Too, wrote her first play at fifteen and penned several outstanding comedic portraits of life as she knew it on 'The Arbor', the toughest estate in Bradford, before dying in a pub at the age of twenty-nine, with a serious drinking problem and three children by different fathers to her name. Her eldest daughter Lorraine, struggling as a half-Pakistani girl in a racist environment and born to a teenage mother, drifted into a rough life of intermittent prostitution and heroin addiction. Lorraine, who had a lot to criticise about Andrea as a mother, was later convicted of causing the death of her two-year-old son by gross neglect.

The Arbor features an unusual dramatic device: it takes the real voices of various family members, recorded in interviews, and then stages them with actors lip-synching in different, semi-symbolic settings. These are interspersed with scenes from Dunbar's first autobiographical play, also called The Arbor.

Does it work the way it should?

Using actors as puppets is a big technical risk, and one that you'd expect to be very distracting. In fact it works superbly. The actors' performances are well up to the technical difficulties, but more than that, the slight disconnect between actor and speaker puts a bit of distance between audience and cast - and oddly, that disconnect is what allows us to sympathise.

The story as it emerges shows how Lorraine, the child who blamed Andrea for her failings as a mother the most, also ended up repeating the most of her mistakes. There's a particularly telling moment when Lorraine, having told the sad story of overhearing her mother say that she wanted her other children but not Lorraine, later remarks sadly that her third child, the boy who died under her care, was the first of her children that she'd really wanted - with no apparent awareness that this remark too would probably find its way to her older children's ears. Lorraine appears as the odd one out in the family, her anger with Andrea causing a rift between her and her sister, and it's a family tension that's familar to many of us: is the angry, difficult one that way because they've suffered more than the forgiving ones, or are they causing themselves more suffering by being difficult? Is the forgiving one forgiving because they're a better person or because they have less to forgive? And can we forgive the unforgiving one when they make mistakes themself?

It's a question that no family will ever agree on: this is the essence of family conflict, that everyone has their own story, that you can grow up in the same house and grow up in a different family at once. The way the film is presented - artificial but naturalistic, real material but a stylised delivery, delicate but unflinching - gives us space to hear each side without demanding that we accept any particular version of the truth ... or perhaps pushes us to say that the truth is that everyone's version is true to them and to no one else.

Family conflicts are full of judgements, but The Arbor's curious, beautiful artificiality shows us reality without judgement. It's really extraordinary.

Ready for this?

I had almost no idea what the film would be when I went in. I knew what the technical conceit was - it's attention-getting - but that was about it: I didn't know anything about Andrea Dunbar, never mind the lives of her children.

So I came out knowing that it was a story about the death of a child, but this was something that unfolded gradually. I had to wait to find out what the movie I was watching was about.

Did it work? Yep. The film goes at a graceful pace, despite the raucousness of Dunbar's intercut scenes, and waiting to see where it was going with this was suspenseful and fascinating rather than confusing or dull. In some ways it's a film that repays watching unprepared, but I guess I've blown it for you with this review. You should still go see it, though.

Life amongst the groundlings

Yep, there was crying in the audience, from other babies and from my own: an hour and a half is a long time for a baby to sit in the dark. Women wandered the aisles shushing their various infants; wails arose at intervals.

How did this affect my viewing the film? Well, I wanted my own son to be happy for two reasons: I wanted him to be happy, and also I was completely gripped. Ironically enough for a film about neglectful mothering, this was a film that strained my commitment to motherhood.

So, any good?

Yep, brilliant. New and original without being the least bit gimmicky: the innovations feel like they were shaped around the material rather than slapped on it willy-nilly. Moving and compassionate, tough and intelligent, and, in its quiet way, compulsively watchable. Really go see this: it's a rare and fascinating gem.

I think this idea is a fantastic one--having special screenings for parents of very young children so they can enjoy the movie-theatre experience without worrying about it.

And thank you for the review. I would have missed this film entirely otherwise.
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