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Brutally engaging, creative and moving blend of documentary and drama
I came to this film thinking that it was a documentary about the young writer Andrea Dunbar, who wrote the play (then film) Rita, Sue and Bob Too as well as a couple of other works before dying very young. I wasn't sure why I should be interested in her or her work but I had heard good things about the film (and had also seen Clio Barnard's previous short films) so I decided to give it a go. What I found was a film that wasn't really about Andrea Dunbar so much as it was the life of her mixed race daughter Lorraine.
In telling this story the film not only tells us about Lorraine's life but also gives us the context by filling in who her mother was (mainly from old BBC documentaries that Lorraine watches) but also shows us what the estate is like by enacting parts of her play on the estate. It is a very creative approach and the blend of documentary and drama compliments each other since the original play was so real as to be a documentary and the real story of their lives is so engaging that it could have been a scripted drama. The film captures this really well and the various sections and threads just fit perfectly together – you are being told about different people in different ways but it never feels like anything other than one story.
I didn't know any of this story so for me it really did impact to hear about the damaged lives coming out of this world (a world shown to us through the play). Assuming others do not know either, I will say no more on the content but it is brutal and saddening but rewarding thanks to how it is told. Much like her short films, Barnard approaches this as a documentary of real people telling stories but where in her shorts I think she hurt the films by having overly distracting images and cutaways as part of her design, here her visual content does nothing but add to the telling. Her "visuals" are actors lip-synching with the recorded word of the real people. The word "lip-synching" has negative connotations – it means pretending, faking it etc in regards music but here it is a great device. The actors not only hit their marks in regards the words, but they do so in a way where they make the words come alive. Virk is tragically brilliant and makes her character sympathetic without making excuses for her; she holds the attention and brings so much out in face and body. Gavin is great as the "girl" in the play – it is her role to help us understand the Dunbar not shown in the BBC interviews, and she does this really well. Down through the cast everyone delivers and they succeed despite the limits of not only the words they have to say, but the nuances and the timing of those words – the majority of the cast have little freedom to move but yet they deliver great performances.
Barnard was showered with praise for this film and rightly so. It is engaging in its telling of this brutal and fascinating family story and it is done with creativity. The blend of documentary and drama is really well done whether it is in the grand scheme of things or even in the smaller detail such as setting the play sections on the estate with people watching in the background. It is not a cheerful film but yet it is a very good one and it is very much worth seeing. I've had issues with some of Barnard's work before, but with this I have almost no reservations about it.
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