Clio Barnard’s latest offering shows us a slice of gritty British realism, with phenomenal lead performances that are both devastating and inspiring.
Troubled school kid Arbor (Conner Chapman) suffers from a variety of issues, on medication for some, and expelled from school for behavioural ones, he is an ignorant secondary school teacher’s idea of a nightmare. The film opens with Arbor physically losing his temper and exacting his rage from the depths of underneath his slatted bed. It is his trusty friend Swifty (Shaun Thomas) who attempts to calm him down, and as the film progresses we begin to see how the misunderstood boys depend on their friendship for survival. We soon learn that Swifty’s family are poverty stricken, his dad selling anything and everything, including their sofa, to make ends meet, resulting in Swifty being the victim of bullies.
After an incident in school, in which Arbor defends his friend, the two boys are expelled and end up spending their time at the local scrap metal yard. Owner, wannabe gypsy Kitten (Sean Gilder), sees the boys as an opportunity for cheap labour and hard work, and gets them grafting; Swifty’s softer side resulting in him caring for Kitten’s expensive horse, and Arbor’s sheer determination lending itself to some petty theft and scrapping.
What follows is a subtle exploration of youth and the underprivileged today and more specifically the powerful affect one person has on another, be it good or bad.
The Selfish Giant is very much in the same vein as Andrea Arnold’s work, particularly Fish Tank (2009), and has elements of Loach in their for good measure, but Barnard manages to inject her own style in an already prescribed genre, successfully adding pace and tension principally into Social Realism. One scene in particular featuring gypsy drag racing, with horses and traps, is stunningly shot, up close and personal, adding a physical sense of drama and almost acting as a climax to the film’s bubbling under the surface tension.
Barnard has also managed to encourage two astounding performances from the lead boys, who are extremely convincing and incorporate a real sense of pathos into extremely complex characters. A fresh new take on a story by Oscar Wilde (also called The Selfish Giant), Barnard has loosely taken this moral tale and given it a twist and an updating. Now set in Bradford, the film’s title ensures we do not forget the links to the fable. The film focusing on poverty stricken Britain as well as the Gypsy culture that has become embedded in our society, adds another element to the moral mix, and beautifully composed lingering landscape shots, consisting of a combination of industrialisation and natural landscape occupied by weather-beaten horses, add yet another poetic level to the multifaceted film.
Where Fish Tank had a female protagonist searching for a way to escape the confines of the estate, The Selfish Giant’s male lead feels far more volatile, like the pinball in a machine, but is just as resourceful. Arbor is a challenging character yet eventually we are charmed by him as we see many flickers of his inherent nature. The two boys are in fact reminiscent of Lenny and George from Of Mice and Men, one considerably larger physically and simpler in mind, the other smaller and more quick-witted, and I’m sure the literary connections don’t stop there.
Although the film and its style may sound like just another grim British tale, it isn’t. Firstly by incorporating Wilde, Barnard ensures another narrative strand as well as providing a relevant portrayal of a particular aspect of Britain today. Secondly, what Barnard does that a lot of other social realism lacks is develops a pace and vigour that feels fresh and pertinent. Fantastic acting also confirms a wonderful cinematic experience that is powerful and extremely memorable. Barnard is fast establishing herself as an important British filmmaker.
Director: Clio Barnard
Writer: Clio Barnard
Stars: Conner Chapman, Shaun Thomas, Sean Gilder