Arts Review, Movies

The Selfish Giant

The Selfish Giant featured image

Clio Barnard, director and script

Starring: Conner Chapman (Arbor), Shaun Thomas (Swifty), Sean Gilder (Kitten), Lorraine Ashbourne (Mary), Siobhan Finneran (Mrs. Swift)

The hype

Inspired by Oscar Wilde’s classic children’s tale and created for the screen by English director-writer Clio Barnard, The Selfish Giant premiered at Cannes where it won the Europa Cinemas Award. It also garnered the best prize at the Stockholm Festival and had its North American premiere at TIFF. It has been acclaimed by the British press, as was the case with The Arbour, her astonishing feature debut, which combined documentary and drama in telling the tragic tale of working class playwright Andrea Dunbar and her fraught legacy.

The premise

Swifty and Arbor are best mates in the tough economically depressed town of Bradford in the north of England. Neither gets along well in school—they’re pre-teens but act much older—and soon find themselves ejected from class. While the thin, crafty Arbor has been expelled, the bigger but nicer Swifty will be allowed back in school if he behaves properly.

But Arbor can’t work as a scrap metal scavenger without his pal, Swifty. Soon, Arbor springs Swifty from school and the two of them take up working for the abrasive, often terrifying Kitten, who runs a scrap yard business acquiring metals and other objects, especially wire, which is a high priced commodity in the area.

Arbor is working to get money for his mother, who has been abandoned by her husband and is coping with her older son, who is a drug addict. Swifty is also giving money to his mum, whose husband is a sad desperate drunk.

Arbor is the leader of the two but he’s a kid, unprepared to deal with a harsh, unforgiving world. Inevitably, he angers Kitten. In contrast, Swifty’s sweet nature and natural acumen makes him a potential racer of horses in drag-racing, a terrifying urban “sport” which can make Kitten more money.

Life in Bradford had become worse since Mrs. Thatcher destroyed the unions. Economic, social and educative forces beyond their control have affected the lives of Swifty, Arbor and Kitten. The collision between Kitten’s controlling ways and his young protégés is inevitable—and so, to some extent, is its tragic conclusion.

Clio Barnard: creative artist

This is Barnard’s second film and so far she’s batting 1000 percent. While her first, The Arbour, was a tour de force, a hybrid documentary drama that challenged viewers formally, The Selfish Giant is clearly a working class fiction feature, coming out of the tradition of such British classics as Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life (1963) and Ken Loach’s Kes (1969).

Once again, we’re plunged into a world of poverty and intense anger punctuated by almost heart-rending moments of love, humour and loyalty. The story of Arbor and Swifty isn’t that dissimilar to that of Kes and the circumstances haven’t changed much either. Despite all the changes engendered by Thatcher and Blair, much of England is still class bound and poverty is an ever-present reality.

Barnard knows this: the setting and story in The Selfish Giant only goes beyond the aesthetics of such previous masters as Loach and Reisz in that explanations don’t have to be given: we know where we are and what we can expect from the characters.

Nevertheless, Barnard’s achievement is considerable. She pushes her angry very young men on the audience with no attempt to clean them up or make them nicer than they are in reality. It takes courage and conviction and she obviously has both as well as dramatic vision.

The skinny

Once again, Clio Barnard has created a marvelous film. The harsh terrain of northern England with its abused violent people is brilliantly evoked by her; Barnard’s work can take its place next to the dignified, black and white photographs of Chris Killip and Don McCullin and the intensely moving novels of David Peace and Alan Sillitoe.

This tough and very moving film should attract a niche audience that will be able to relate to its mature and difficult story. Not for everyone? Well, no—but there will be those who see The Selfish Giant who will never forget it.

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