Based on a children’s short story by Oscar Wilde, Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant is a rag and bone tale of friendship de profundis.
An Episode In The Life Of An Iron Picker by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Gone are the startling visual dramatics of Clio Barnard’s debut film The Arbor and in its place something altogether more conventional and more cinematic. Based on Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant, Barnard’s film is a touching portrait of friendship, guilt and forgiveness. Yet it’s retained something of The Arbor, not only in the continuity of the name – now borne by the young truant at The Selfish Giant‘s centre – Arbor another put-upon child of inadequate parenting, but also in its council estate domestic intimacy, all grubby carpets and fenceless gardens. Of all the recent slew of British kitchen sink aspiration, from Ratcatcher to Fish Tank, The Selfish Giant recalls early Ken Loach the most, set in Yorkshire and a kind of hybrid between Kes and Cathy Come Home. But with great performances and a delicate, simple and moving story, Clio Barnard is a humanist filmmaker in her own right. Just more social than socialist.
Hyperactive and off his medication, Arbor (Conner Chapman) rails at the world from underneath his bed. Only his friend Swifty (Shaun Thomas) can coax him out. Together, they cruise the town on horseback, and when they catch two men stealing railway cables, it’s an unmissable opportunity to nick it from them and cash in the copper. At school Arbor’s mouthy and violent, and when Swifty’s bullied and Arbor holds his aggressor down for a knock-out punch, he’s happy to be excluded – eager to become a full-time scrap man. He’s a grafter and soon the boys are paying their family’s way, until they’re spotted stripping and burning stolen telephone cable casings. Caught somewhere between doing right by his family and doing wrong by the law – and used by the yard owner Kitten (Sean Gilder) to purloin precious metals, the stakes get higher as the two friends are driven apart – divided by a love of money and the love of horses.
Clio Barnard’s film is a far cry from Oscar Wilde’s short story of perpetual winter descending on a giant’s childless garden, but its central characters, updated and imbued with a new more mundane, industrial kind of tragedy, are similar – Kitten swaying between selfish greed and self-sacrificing generosity as well as Arbor’s grim, guilt-ridden innocence. To begin with, The Selfish Giant comes dangerously close to a TV drama – an estate-and-benefits tale of truancy and guilt-ridden, struggling parent – not exactly helped by its small-screen star cast. But gradually the film lays down its big-screen credentials, with haunting contemplative images of misty power station chimneys and star-lit horses. Electricity cables add a frisson of tension to this Oliver Twist story too, Arbor forced by his own Fagan to steal live cable from a pylon pit before being caught red-handed robbing copper bales from Kitten. But like the pair of horses tied up in the field below a broken power cable, the foal dead and the mother wrapped round a live wire, there’s a haunting inevitability to the family’s plight – of a single mother struggling to keep it together while her two sons head rapidly into criminality and violence.
With a brilliant performance from Conner Chapman as Arbor, The Selfish Giant goes beyond a story about friendship. It’s the boys’ care for each other that gives the film its structure – Arbor imagining Swifty enticing him from his attack of grief beneath the bed, their hands clasped together, as well as the film’s crux – a literally electrifying embodiment of friendship that leaves Swifty charred and Arbor emotionally scarred. Desolate and inconsolable, he camps outside Swifty’s house, and later underneath his bed again, desperate for his friend’s mother’s forgiveness. The not-so-selfish giant of a scrap merchant having taken the heat, Arbor is still left with his guilt, having been driven to risk his friend’s life for money. And now he’s back at square one – excluded from school, penniless and friendless.
A deeply moving and tender portrait of a friendship in the “grim up-north”, Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant is a terrifying parable where wayward, unruly sons of impoverished families get rich or die trying. There’s a poetry to the satanic mills and thrumming pylons, and a precarious lawlessness in the no-honour-among-thieves world of scrap. And while its monochrome morality betrays its children’s story beginnings and its Shameless cast its small-screen roots, The Selfish Giant is nevertheless a deceptively masterful piece of cinema with a warm heart that beats long after the credits have rolled.
The Selfish Giant is released on 25th October 2013 in the UK