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United Kingdom 2013
Directed by
Clio Barnard
91 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Chris Thompson
4 stars

The Selfish Giant

Synopsis: Thirteen year old Arbor (Conner Chapman) and his best friend Swifty (Shaun Thomas) take advantage of their exclusion from school to try their hand at scrap metal collecting. Arbor sees it as a way of making a few quid out of Kitten (Sean Gilder), the local scrap dealer who also has an interest in horses that is shared by Swifty who has a natural gift with the animals. When Kitten shows more interest in Swifty, Arbor is left feeling hurt and envious of his friend and slowly, tensions build, leading to a tragic event which transforms them all.

I didn’t ever see Clio Barnard’s much lauded first film, The Arbor (2010) but the title clearly appealed to her enough that she used it again as the central character’s name in The Selfish Giant. Set in Bradford in the north of England, it is a tough film that moves from one scene of desperation to another. Here, the currency is what can be pilfered or sold off to make the smallest amounts of money that might keep the power on long enough so that the children don’t have to eat another meal of cold baked beans. The one glimmer of hope in this story is the gentle nature of Arbor’s simple minded friend Swifty and his growing relationship with Diesel, the scrap dealer’s horse. That, and the close friendship between the two boys is what keeps the grim reality of their lives from overwhelming us in its stark portrayal. So it’s devastating to watch the tensions rise between the two boys as Arbor becomes more venal and resentful of Swifty’s growing sense of self as he spends more time caring for the horse.

As their friendship becomes more strained and as Arbor becomes more wilful in his self-centred view of the world, we suspect this is heading for a bad end and, to a certain extent, the inevitable fulfilment of that suspicion serves to keep us from becoming totally immersed in the tragedy of the story. For most of this remarkable film, I felt somehow on the outside looking in on a story which deserves great admiration and respect, but might have moved and surprised me more than it did.

Despite these slight misgivings, Barnard’s film is still an outstanding work of social realism. The performances, especially of the two boys, are compellingly authentic and could easily be mistaken for the real thing. The strong screenplay (also by Barnard) quite possibly owes more to both Ken Loach and his 1969 film, Kes, than it does to the Oscar Wilde story from which it takes its inspiration. In that story, the Selfish Giant has a beautiful garden from which he bans the children causing the flowers and trees to wither in a permanent winter until he sees the error of his ways and sets out to make amends. If Kitten is the giant and his scrap yard is the ‘garden’ of this story, then there seems little hope for the bleak view we are offered into this poverty-stricken world. If, however, the ‘garden’ is the world at large, and the ‘selfish giant’ is a social and economic system that has excluded the film's characters, then perhaps the glimmer of light we see in the final few frames is offering us the prospect that out of terrible events, natures can change, and if they can change, perhaps the world can too.




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