18 Nov 2021
Catrin Stewart, Rhodri Meilir, Nicholas McGaughey
The torment, anguish and lingering pain of grief, as well as the elusive relief of acceptance are at the heart of The Arborist, a short, personal story from director Clare Sturges that mixes gorgeous cinematography with raw emotion.
When tree surgeon Laura (Catrin Stewart) discovers that her sister Eloise’s memorial tree is dying, she heads to her childhood home to try and make sense of the overwhelming sense of loss she once again feels. There, she is reunited with estranged older brother Joe (Rhodri Meilir), who faces his own struggles relating to their shared pain. In the aftermath of their family tragedy, Laura looks for solace and reconciliation.
The Arborist is a short film which beautifully portrays sorrow, and the complex and difficult emotions people face in the aftermath of unimaginable loss. As a semi-autobiographical piece, the story is imbued with the personal experiences of director Clare Sturges, who masterfully translates her own grief on-screen in a manner which absorbs viewers into protagonist Laura’s story. The show-don’t-tell approach of the majority of the film says as much as words ever could, and clear care is taken to ensure these scenes never become hokey or cliched.
The personal, intimate scenes of Laura piecing together her old life at home contrast with the atmospheric, eery outdoor scenes in the forests. Both are equally impressive and stand out as highlights of the film – to the great credit of Sturges and director of photography Christopher Jacobi. Laura piecing together letter block toys she and her twin would play with is a simple, yet devastating bit of visual storytelling. Whilst the way in which the trees themselves, particularly the memorial tree for Eloise, feel like characters in their own right is another impressive demonstration of the film’s direction – increasing the sense of solitude and isolation.
The film’s takes a thematic journey which follows the natural development of its characters. From portraying the complex and counter-productive actions we take when we suffer, the film proceeds to highlight the necessary, relieving and sometimes illogical route we all must take to accept life’s harshest developments, and come to terms with even the worst events in our lives if we are to move past them. Laura and Joe’s reunion progresses from almost antagonistic, to a place audiences will sense they can begin to rebuild their lives, and their family from. It is a truly human journey, and one the film earns by having raw emotion at its forefront.
The performances of Catrin Stewart and Rhodri Meilir anchor the film, both displaying shared devastation yet resulting in very different methods of coping. Stewart’s Laura almost inquisitively pursues her own grief when the loss of her sister’s tree brings her pain to the boil. Meanwhile Meilir’s Joe is mercurial, and presents a challenge for viewers as to how to react to him. This is a brilliantly engaging characterisation that shows everyone handles grief in their own way – as his seeming passiveness is clearly shown to be a coping mechanism.
The Arborist is a worthy and artistic portrayal of grief that is elevated by the vision of its director, and the solemn yet visceral performances of its two stars. It is a film packed with heavy emotion, yet strangely therapeutic despite a tragic overtone.