The Selfish Giant

Issue section: 
(385)

Director Clio Barnard

The Selfish Giant is inspired by Oscar Wilde's story for children of the same name. The story follows two 14 year old boys, Swifty (played by Shaun Thomas) and Arbor (Conner Chapman), excluded from school, neglected by the authorities and living in poverty on Bradford's Buttershaw Estate.

It is a grim place to be:unemployment levels are high and everything is shut down. Arbor and Swifty, who see their families having to sell their only furniture to survive, go into the scrap-metal business to make some money. At first, going around their neighbourhood picking up discarded fridges in an old pram gives them a sense of purpose. But before long they get sucked into the world of Kitten, the scrap dealer played by Sean Gilder of "Shameless", and become ruthlessly manipulated by him to go further and further in the pursuit of profit.

Kitten is central to the local drag-racing scene. He invites Swifty, who has a great talent with horses, to ride those belonging to him to make money. While it is tough to watch this exploitation, it is also clear that Swifty really enjoys pursuing his passion and the fun the boys have with the animal gives them something of a release from the depression of everyday life.

The film really excels when it focuses on the deep friendship between Swifty and Arbor. Physically, they look startlingly different: Arbor scrawny and Swifty lumpy. But their friendship pulls the story together beautifully. They are fiercely loyal to one another. Some of the most moving scenes are when it is just them, on a broken trampoline, affectionately teasing one another in the way that teenagers do. There they seem to escape most of the despair that surrounds them.

They are funny too. Arbor pokes fun at the police who come round to his house to talk about the theft of some overhead cabling by asking them to take their shoes off before they come in.

Unfortunately, the characterisation of the rest of the cast leaves something to be desired. Kitten is the only other character to have much to get his teeth into. His wife - who displays affection towards the boys but continues to exploit them - is developed very little. Both boys show huge attachment to their mothers, demonstrating great care and dedication to each of them, and it would have been rewarding to have seen this developed further.

This is a visually stunning film. Cinematographer Mike Eley - who worked with Ken Loach on The Navigators - does justice to both the closeness of relationships and how these relate to their surroundings. Scenes of them running a horse and cart down Bradford's roads sit alongside vast landscapes of industrialised countryside, with sheep and pylons juxtaposed.

The Selfish Giant is brilliant and bleak social realism.