The Selfish Giant

August 9, 2014
The Selfish Giant

Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant borrows its title from a children’s tale by Oscar Wilde but sets the action in a working-class town in West Yorkshire. Wilde’s fable concerns a grumpy giant who prevents a group of children from playing in his garden and is punished with perpetual winter. The disjunction between story and film is so jarring that until one begins to sink deeply into the prevailing atmosphere of gloom and squalor, a good deal of time is spent wondering what’s the point of the title.

There is nothing very Wildean about Arbor (Conner Chapman), a hyperactive thirteen-year-old who can’t sit still for a second. Only his name is suggestive of the trees that play a starring role in Wilde’s fairy tale. In school and at home, Arbor’s restless energy finds expression in violent, abusive outbursts. His best friend is Swifty, a great placid lump of a lad, obsessed with horses. We’ve seen this combination before, most notably in John Steinbeck’s classic novella, Of Mice and Men.

The boys’ hometown is a black hole of poverty and misery. Families live from hand-to-mouth, pawning the furniture for a few quid, swearing and cursing at each other. Most of the dialogue is delivered in an incomprehensible dialect, riddled with expletives. One can hardly understand a word but the narrative remains completely lucid – a notable achievement by a director making her first dramatic feature.

It’s clear from the beginning that Arbor is not destined for academic glory. His sole-parent mum is struggling to pay the rent, while his elder brother, Martin, is an addict. When Arbor offends once too often he is suspended from school, along with the hapless Swifty. He takes it as a opportunity, thinking he can make some money to help the family by collecting scrap.

The scrapyard is run by a hard man called Kitten (Sean Gilder), who sends the boys out with a horse and cart to pick up junk. He charges them for the rent of the cart and pays them a pittance. We soon realise that Kitten is the selfish giant, and the filthy scrapyard his garden.

Arbor is keen to increase his income, and has realised that the real treasure is copper wire. Having made this discovery he sees riches everywhere – casting greedy looks at power lines and high tension cables. As the camera pans over the Yorkshire landscape we see a vista of factories and massive electrical pylons. It’s a snapshot of the wealth being generated in this human wasteland, and Arbor thinks he should have a share.

Swifty is less alert to such dubious opportunities. He is more interested in Kitten’s other occupation, as the owner of a horse that he takes harness racing on the local roads. The scene showing a race, with two horses charging down a highway pursued by a flotilla of hoons leaning out of car windows to intimidate the other party’s horse, is a breathtaking piece of cinema. Hollywood would have shot the sequence in CGI, robbing it of its crude excitement.

Nothing about this movie suggests there might be a happy ending on the way. It is a tragedy not simply in its dramatic resolution, but in the way it portrays the entire fabric of life. It is a portrait of Northern England in the age of global capital, where the locals don’t sit around in pubs singing songs but fight like savage dogs over anything of value. Kitten is willing to send the boys out stealing copper wire because he knows they are minors who won’t feel the full weight of the law.

Barnard has used a mixture of professional and amateur actors, with the two main characters – Conner Chapman as Arbor, and Shaun Thomas as Swifty – debuting with an impressive naturalness. There’s no sentimentality or left-wing piety in this bleak portrait of life in a Bradford housing estate. There are no concessions towards childhood, as Arbor and Swifty are forced to compete with adults who are ready to exploit and cheat them. The rationale is: “to teach them a lesson”.

One wonders what kind of lesson the viewer should be taking away from this film. The picture of life Barnard paints is so claustrophobic it offers very little in the way of hope. It’s an environment in which notions of good and evil take second place to the simple fact of survival; where the necessary qualities for success are cunning and brutality; where the cycle by which one generation tyrannises the next is as much a part of the landscape as the ubiquitous pylons. If there is any chance of redemption or escape, the first need is to break through the rock hard shell each child has developed, that passes for a personality.

The Selfish Giant
Written & directed by Clio Barnard, inspired by a story by Oscar Wilde
Starring Conner Chapman, Shaun Thomas, Sean Gilder, Rebecca Manley, Elliott Tittensor
UK, rated MA 15+, 91 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 9th August, 2014.