Bleak and beautiful: The Selfish Giant

The selfish giantTHE TRAPPINGS of British social realism wrap themselves around The Selfish Giant, a wonderful film that loosely allegorises Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale of the same name and sets it on a crumbling council estate in Bradford. Bleak, beautiful and heartbreaking all at once, director/writer Clio Barnard’s sophomore effort is a powerhouse, brimming with passion, spark and humour. The old stalwart of “Gri’’y Bri’ Flick” certainly applies but there’s no shame in it; this is a relentlessly stark work, with pylons looming out of the Northern earth while horses graze underneath. The landscape resembles the one seen in Tyrannosaur (another bastion of striking Brit gloom), an oppressive grey-walled terrace of misery, flanked by overflowing scrap heaps and muddy patches of green. Here there be monsters of the domestic variety and they’re all the more frightening for it.

This isn’t so much kitchen-sink realism as copper-scrap realism, refracted through the eyes of two delinquent children, Arbor and Swifty. Having been expelled from school (one permanently, the other temporarily), the kids opt to make some money on the side by stealing scraps and selling them to Kitten (Sean Gilder), a monstrous brute of a man who owns a scrapyard. Gilder’s terrifying portrayal casts an immense, eyeballing shadow over the film; from his ruined fortress of scrap metal, he sends the kids out on thieving missions for scant profit. Similarly exploitative is Swifty’s father (Steve Evets), known as ‘Price Drop’ for his wheeler-dealer ways, who takes whatever money Swifty earns for himself. Siobhan Fenneran and Rebecca Manley as the boys’ mothers both do a fine job, their weariness reflected in their eyes.

We cannot, however, discuss the performances without praising the two young leads. Conner Chapman’s Arbor and Shaun Thomas’ Swifty are both magnetically brilliant, exuding a talent far beyond their youthful years. Even more impressively, their performances are debuts. Chapman’s ADHD-suffering Arbor violently lashes out at the world one minute and snarkily asks a police officer to take off his shoes in the house the next; Thomas’ gentle (“soft”), near-saintly Swifty shows a natural affinity for horses, a talent Kitten also seeks to exploit in illegal harness racing (seen in a thrilling sequence around the mid-point).

As the role of protector and protected reverse and the rift between their friendship grows, the two boys lose their inseparability. Their arc, as powerful as it is painful, is inevitably fulfilled with gut-wrenching force in the final ten minutes. The imagery consolidates this power, with the kids often rendered miniscule beneath terraced houses and towering pylons. Elsewhere, extended close-up shots enhance the intimacy between the two. The lack of any real soundtrack (save for a single moment near the end) similarly bolsters the film’s desolate beauty.

We shouldn’t get too wrapped up in connecting the dots with regards to who equates to what in Wilde’s story, since the titular giant could refer to anyone in the film. The absence of the Christ figure from the story is a ringing one, with no redemption offered and none taken. There is no paradise at film’s end and there is no garden; just a scrapheap.

The Selfish Giant is an arrestingly poignant film, shot with passionate dedication and acted with real verve. Critics condemning it as misery-porn for the middle class (and yes, there have been some) have missed the point entirely. If it doesn’t make stars out of its two young leads there’s something very wrong with the industry. On this evidence, however, independent British film is in top shape.