The Selfish Giant is a British social-realism film in the tradition of all such films from Kes onwards, so it never feels particularly fresh, but it does feel real and true, is superbly performed, and it does pack quite an emotional punch. I had to gather myself afterwards, and I’m still gathering myself, and may be gathering myself for some time to come. So it’s good at what it does, even though what it does has been done before. At least I think that’s what I’m trying to say. I’m never really that sure.
This is the second feature from Clio Barnard, whose first, The Arbor, was a portrait of the Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar, inventively told by fusing lip-synching with first-hand testimonies. It’s extraordinary and brilliant and if you’ve seen it you’ll know you’ve seen it, and will always know you’ve seen it and, if you haven’t, what do you want me to do? Drop the DVD round? The Arbor was set on the Butterworth Estate in Bradford, as is this, but this is narrative fiction and a loose riff on Oscar Wilde’s children’s story; the one where the giant excludes children from his garden, which then falls into perpetual winter; the one which says: ‘Don’t shut out people from the good stuff;’ the one which, if you told it to capitalism, would have capitalism putting its fingers in its ears while going ‘LA LA LA LA’ very, very loudly. (I once tried to read this story to capitalism, and it did just that.)
It follows two boys, Arbor (obviously named as a nod to Barnard’s earlier work, and played by Conner Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas), who are both around 13. Arbor is small, quick, hyper, always has his eye on the main chance, and is given to lashing out. Swifty is bigger and slower and sweeter and the two together are a bit like George and Lennie from Of Mice and Men. What have they been excluded from? Pretty much everything including, I suppose, their own childhoods. Their school has given up on them. Other kids don’t appear to like them. Their own families can’t look after them. They are poor and have no access to any of the material niceties. In one scene, Swifty’s father sells the family sofa from under the family, literally. The boys have been consigned to the scrapheap, and scrap becomes their thing.
They start stealing copper wiring, which is worth proper money, and which they can sell on to Kitten (Sean Gilder, Paddy Maguire from Shameless, which is fitting, as this is like an episode of Shameless, but written by Morrissey). Kitten owns and runs the local scrapyard, and is the giant of the title, as well as dangerous and cruel, but Arbor looks up to him. Kitten can give him an identity. ‘I’m a scrap man,’ Arbor begins telling everyone. Kitten is from gypsy stock and owns a horse, whom Swifty comes to love, and which sends Arbor into a destructive jealous rage. The ending is not untelegraphed, but it will still wind you, and wind you significantly.
The film is beautifully shot, poetically shot, lyrically shot: fog-shrouded sheep against decaying urban landscapes; fields criss-crossed by pylons; horses in half-mists or, most exhilaratingly, trap-racing down the motorway. And the performances are superb. Chapman has physical swagger while Thomas offers something softer, but in both instances they command the screen with a perfect naturalism. Both are non-professionals, recruited from the estate itself, and I do now find myself praying: I hope they haven’t been invited into a garden from which they will shortly be banished.(Katie Jarvis, who was similarly recruited for Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, and declared she wished to be an actress from now on, has ‘no upcoming projects’ listed under her IMDB entry.)
But if The Selfish Giant isn’t as invigorating as it might be, it’s because of the familiarities. The boys’ family circumstances — absent or brutal fathers, mothers who are victims themselves — are familiar to the point of cliché, and the contrast between human ugliness and the beauty of nature has rather been done to death. So its framework is nothing new, but I’m still gathering myself and when it comes down to it, that’s probably the main thing here.