In its basic methods, Clio Barnard’s wonderful, emotionally devastating The Selfish Giant is more straightforward than her formally inventive documentary debut, The Arbor. But it has poetic elements, as hinted by the title’s reference to Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale, and the frequent presence of horses, and high horizons at dusk that could be clips from The Seventh Seal. This film has a fabulous, spiritual edge, but is also unique in its vernacular authenticity. Like The Arbor, this movie is set in the ultra-poor Midlands town of Bradford (and environs). The pungent, rapid dialogue, generously laced with nicely improvised epithets and oaths (which are not without a redeeming poetical lilt), is subtitled throughout for tin-eared viewers. This local brew is the medium with which Barnard weaves her spell.
Mike D’Anngelo’s AV Club report from Cannes noted The Selfish Giant is a movie “one could easily mistake for the work of Ken Loach or Shane Meadows…though only if those directors were working near the top of their game.” In its depiction of the shared lives and tragic careers of two working class outcast early teen boys, The Selfish Giant treads on similar ground to Shane Meadows’ Somers Town, but it goes deeper and is more involving. Barnard is working in a neorealist tradition close to Meadows. This film left me feeling pleasantly devastated, much the way I felt when I walked out of a first viewing of Louis Malle’s Au Revoir Les Enfants into a grey, drizzly Paris evening not knowing if it was the dampness or tears forming on my cheeks. The Selfish Giant is deeply sad, but it’s also stirringly hopeful and alive.
It’s also very specific, an endless series of little events that one can’t summarise. In the foreground are Arbor (Conner Chapman), named evidently for Barnard’s first film, and his best friend Swifty (Shaun Thomas), who is bigger and softer. and good with horses. And this makes Arbor and Swifty a team, since they gather scraps with a horse-drawn cart, anachronistic as that may sound. The world they live in is no less harsh and contemporary for this archaic methodology.
Conner Chapman, whose reality one never doubts for a moment, is little, blond, hard-edged and feisty like Thomas Turgoose of Meadows’ This is England and Somers Town, but Arbor is an entrepreneur, and he is madly driven like Cyril, the protagonist of the Dardennes’ 2011 The Kid with the Bike. Arbor is hyper, and has fits of anger, and he’s on medication, when he takes it. “Kid’s coke,” somebody calls it. Arbor and Swifty compliment each other, because Swifty can sit still. This time instead of The Arbor’s focal group of poor houses, though there is that, there are two other centres, a big scrap metal collecting and processing location and a nuclear power station, near which are giant electric towers and cables. There is also school, from which the two boys get “excluded” (expelled or suspended), Swifty temporarily, Arbor permanently. The boys have families, with whom their relations are both warm and combative, the latter especially in Arbor’s case.
Arbor wants to be a “scrap man.” This leads the boy into a relationship with Kitten (Sean Gilder) — everybody has a slang name — a scrap dealer who exploits the boys, pushing them to the theft of valuable cable that adults would go to jail for. Kitten is brutal and sworn at as Arbor swears at everybody, with awesome, comical fluency, shown off best in an early scene at school, but the man is also appealed to and looked up to. The boys can really get good money, £250 at one go, for their illegal cullings, paid out to them by Kitten’s cashier, Mary (Lorraine Ashbourne). Then there is the distraction of harness racing, which leads to a sequence whose danger anticipates worse to come and gives a sense that Kitten’s exploitation and self-amusement is as heedless as Arbor’s search for gain — which in his case is only so he and Swifty can help their mothers stay afloat with creditors, who seem to hover at the gates.
The boys’ growing zeal as scrap boys for Kitten lead them into danger far beyond their earlier truant mischief, ultimately to tragedy, but also to repentance and perhaps redemption. It all happens so swiftly and intensely you never have time to think you’re being “told” something. It’s all shown, and felt, by us as well as the boys. Clio Barnard may be an outsider kind of insider: she’s from Bradford but middle class. But she has studied this world so diligently (The Arbor shows) that she can paint a tragedy and a myth using a surface dense with vernacular flavour and ethnic detail. This is England, again. Barnard hasn’t done anything as mind-bogglingly inventive as her debut film, but this is still a not-so-small triumph, one of the year’s best English-language films.
The Selfish Giant is out on DVD 27th January 2014.
DIRECTOR: CLIO BARNARD
WRITER: CLIO BARNARD
STARS: CONNOR CHAPMAN, SHAUN THOMAS, SEAN GILDER, REBERTA MANLEY, SIOBBAN FINNEAN, STEVE EVETS, LORRAINE ASHBOURNE, RHYS MCCOY, ELLIOTT TITTENSOR, IAN BURFIELD, RALPH INESON
RUNTIME: 91 MIN