Review: The Selfish Giant
Taking its title from Oscar Wilde’s children’s fable, Clio Barnard’s second feature might seem a drastic departure from her docufiction hybrid debut, The Arbor (10). But the new film draws more on the director’s experiences and observations on location at the Buttershaw estate—the public housing project in Bradford, England where The Arbor is set—than it does from Wilde’s story. Gritty and grim, The Selfish Giant serves up an ample second helping of British miserabilism, but this time Barnard has softened her story with a tenderness that makes the film (slightly) easier to digest.
At the center of The Selfish Giant is the friendship between Arbor (Conner Chapman) and “Swifty” (Shaun Thomas), two boys on the cusp of adolescence. A close-up of their hands firmly clasped together in the opening scene makes it clear from the outset that the pair have little to rely on besides each other. Arbor lives with his single mother and a delinquent half-brother who steals his ADHD meds to sell for a few quid. Without his “kiddie-coke,” the diminutive and foul-mouthed Arbor is frequently overcome by violent fits of rage, and the outstretched arm of the even-tempered Swifty is the only antidote.
Chubby and softhearted, Swifty is an easy target for schoolyard bullies who tease him relentlessly about his “pikey” parents. The extent of his family’s destitution is painfully illustrated when we witness his mother (Siobhan Finneran) dolloping meager portions of canned baked beans onto each of her eight children’s dinner plates while her abusive husband (Steve Evets), known as “Price Drop” in the neighborhood, hawks their last piece of living room furniture just to pay the electric bill. When Arbor comes to Swifty’s rescue one day at school, both boys receive suspensions, much to the chagrin of their mothers, who recognize that an education is the only chance their sons have at a better life.
Ever the opportunist, Arbor sees more payoff in “scrapping” than scholastic achievement. With a borrowed horse-and-cart, he coaxes Swifty to help him scavenge bits of metal from around the neighborhood, selling the bounty to a gruff and crooked scrapyard dealer ironically nicknamed Kitten (Sean Gilder). Arbor and Swifty graduate from pilfering prams and kitchen faucets to wrenching off car doors and electric piping, but the higher-profit work becomes increasingly dangerous, with Kitten gladly exploiting their willingness to take risks both legal and physical.
Like the giant’s garden in Wilde’s story, the scrapyard is plagued by perpetual winter. Overrun by heaps of jagged metal and tainted by Kitten’s one-dimensional icy demeanor, it is no place for children and yet it seems to be the boys’ only viable option for survival. If the film draws anything from the fable, it’s the theme of neglected youth—the very serious ramifications of children who have, as Wilde puts it, “nowhere to play.” Although their mothers genuinely care for their sons, they are ineffectual providers; it’s the kids who wind up paying their debts, literally salvaging all they can from the decay left behind by the older generation.
Though the landscape of Bradford is primarily brown and exceedingly dreary, The Selfish Giant is punctuated by a bounty of striking wide-angle shots that showcase the natural beauty of Northern England: serene rolling hills populated by gently grazing horses and starkly silhouetted trees. Cinematographer Mike Eley’s collapsed perspective lends a storybook quality to these images that seems to romanticize a pre-industrial past, particularly when juxtaposed against the endlessly harmful encroachments of modernity—the live wire that electrocutes a foal, for example.
In The Arbor Barnard imparted the estranging touch of fiction upon reality, using professional actors to lip-synch the audio interviews she had conducted with friends and family of playwright Andrea Dunbar. Here she relies on (talented) nonprofessionals to endow her fictional story with an effortless sense of realism. Though Thomas and Chapman are new to acting, they were familiar with the situations their characters find themselves in: casting director Amy Hubbard made sure to find Bradford boys who knew their way around scrapyards. Both deliver surprisingly powerful performances, driving the film forward with a palpable—and at times heart-wrenching—energy that overrides the screenplay’s minor flaws. The physicality of the overgrown Swifty and exceptionally runty Arbor make them a particularly endearing odd couple to watch, and their friendship feels real, from start to tragic finish.
With a story that risks mawkishness, Barnard maintains a relatively reserved but highly effective tone. The film’s final image completes a full visual circle that is sure to make even the stiffest upper lip quiver with emotion.