In northern England, two 13-year-olds are expelled from school and start 'scrapping' for a local metal dealer, in exchange for cash. Soon the boys, Arbor (Conner Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas) are drawn into the criminal underworld, which they struggle to leave.

 

 

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If you haven’t seen Clio Barnard’s feature debut, The Arbor, you should: it’s one of the most inventive and powerful British features of the past quarter-century. In detailing the life and death of Bradford-based playwright Andrea Dunbar—who was born into poverty and wrote a handful of well-regarded plays, before dying at 29, an alcoholic, of a cerebral haemorrhage—the filmmaker (who trained as a visual artist) employed an ingenious device: having actors drawn from the local community lip-synch dialogue drawn from various interviews the filmmaker had conducted with Dunbar’s family and friends.

‘Verbatim cinema’, she called it—and the strategy was ingenious: by endistancing the viewer, and creating a slippage between performance and narrative, it served to undermine and critique the sense of strict verisimilitude that attaches itself easily (and often unjustifiably) to so much documentary filmmaking.

My hopes were high, therefore, for this: her fictional debut. Barnard not only possessed technique to burn, but seemed alert to the ways in which the conventions of social-realism—that most shopworn and depleted of Brit-film genres—could be diverted, into the richer, stranger waters of post-structuralism. Also, there was that title. The notion of adapting one of Oscar Wilde’s most mysterious and beautiful fairytales, and re-siting it in the present-day north of Britain, seemed to me both audacious as well as intriguing.

Alas, Wilde’s story receives only passing reference here: apart from a direct reference at the very end (which only really packs a punch if you know the original text), the focus is strictly quotidian, fixed on two 13-year-old boys living in the council estates of Bradford. One, Arbor, is tough and mouthy and miserable—not especially bright, but smart enough, at least, to sense just how little he knows, and how little hope he has. His best friend Swifty is slow, dreamy to the point of abstraction, and as such, a target for every bullying thug who comes his way.

When one of Arbor’s fights gets both boys suspended from school, they begin to search for ways to make some money, and hit upon foraging for scrap metal to sell. But this requires them not only to steal, but to negotiate with a local tinker, the hulking, foul-mouthed ‘Kitten’—as misleadingly-nicknamed in his way as the none-too-fleet Swifty.

Lord of his dismal scrapyard—much as the giant in Wilde’s story remained confined to the walled garden where he exercised absolute dominion—Kitten is a monster, a hustler with a sharp eye for human weakness and a ruthless appetite for exploitation. In addition to dealing in scrap, he also operates a clandestine trotting circuit, and before long he recognises in the gentle Swifty an innate talent for handling horses. Though initially drawn to Arbor, he soon begins to favour the quieter lad—in the process, upending the fragile status quo of the boys’ relationship. Seething with jealousy and resentment, Arbor attempts to strike out on his own…

It's a promising, thorny scenario: two boys competing for the approval of a cruelly dismissive surrogate father-figure. Yet somehow the result feels somewhat second-hand, described rather than felt; you sense the filmmaker outside of the material, imposing an authorial sensibility upon it, rather than inhabiting it directly. This, despite occasional directorial flourishes, like one extraordinary set-piece: a horse-race down a public road at dawn, with the two riders being followed by a mad array of gamblers in cars, sideswiping each other, their horns blaring, recording the whole thing on their smartphones… (My favourite moment, though, was one of the smallest: Arbor’s truculent insistence that two cops, visiting his house, remove their shoes at the door.)

Call it the School of Kes: Ken Loach’s most famous film has defined an entire sub-genre of British cinema, and spawned a host of imitations—most of them, admittedly, far clumsier and more derivative than this one. (One of its young stars, Connor Chapman, who plays Arbor, even looks like the young David Bradley from Loach’s classic.) This film wants to place another stone in that wall, and become part of what’s by now an established and extremely British tradition—one that stretches from Loach all the way through to latter-day adherents like Shane Meadows and Andrea Arnold and Duane Hopkins.

Let me stress: there’s nothing much wrong with this movie, per se. It’s extremely well-made, and the cast of mostly non-pro actors acquit themselves creditably. It also looks beautiful, thanks not only to Barnard’s careful compositions, but to Mike Eley’s penumbral plein air cinematography. Shrouded in mist, its valleys lost in velvety shadows, the West Yorkshire landscape looks almost primeval—in stark contrast to the man-made artefacts it contains, the waste and dereliction of an entire industrial class passing rapidly into obsolescence. There is the sense, as you watch, of something disintegrating: a culture disenfranchised from the very earth it’s inhabited over centuries of work and tradition.

Even so, if I’m honest, the result didn’t move me for a single second, so programmatic was its story, and so familiar its treatment. I’m prepared to believe that Barnard—a theoretician at heart—might be making a point with this: that, trapped as they are by their circumstances, the lives of the working-classes conform strictly to type; they are incapable of surprise. But that would seem to contract the premise of The Arbor, where one doomed woman managed nonetheless to achieve something genuinely startling—at least for a moment. Whereas neither of these kids can transcend their destinies, or rise above themselves in any way… I suspect because the film they’re trapped in itself feels obliged to conform so rigorously to convention.

As such, it must be considered a failure—but only on the lofty terms its maker set herself with her debut. Good as this is, she’s capable of better.