Mr East Goes To The Movies 2013: The Selfish Giant

by George_East on October 29, 2013

Clio Barnard’s second feature, The Selfish Giant, got rave reviews at the Cannes Film Festival in May, and it has been one of the films in that festival that I have been most looking forward to seeing.   Based loosely on an Oscar Wilde story of the same name, it is a film which focuses on the lives of two boys from impoverished households in the bleak and de-industrialised outskirts of Bradford.

Arbor (Conner Champman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas) are two 13 year old boys who are disenchanted and disengaged from the education system who try to earn some money by scrounging and stealing scrap metal and selling it to a local scrap dealer (and Fagin figure) with the improbable name of Kitten (Sean Kilder).

Arbor (as it happens The Arbor was the name of Barnard’s debut film), is a fearless ADHD suffering entrepreneurial force of nature, who somewhat resembles in looks and character, David Bradley’s Billy in Ken Loach’s seminal Kes, to which The Selfish Giant is plainly indebted.   Arbor lives with his Mum and his bullying drug addict brother, who steals Arbor’s medication for his own use.

Swifty is from a huge family (of ‘wannabe gypsies).  He is a follower not a leader – in contrast to Arbor’s delight in being excluded from school, Swifty will follow his Mum’s orders and go back to school  just to sit in reception during his exclusion.  If Arbor’s family are poor, that is nothing compared to Swifty’s.   The first scene we see of Swifty’s house is his father, ‘Price Drop’ Swift (played by the star of Ken Loach’s Looking For Eric, Steve Evets), selling a sofa for £250 to make some money to pay the heating bills – we will find out later that the sofa is on HP and was not Swift’s to sell.

It is though the boys’ essential goodness that will result in the tragedy that the film builds up to – Arbor’s scrapping for money is motivated by a desire to get money to pay off his family’s debts – Swifty will be able to buy a new sofa and Arbor’s Mum will even be able to pay off his older brother, Martin’s drug debts that leads to their house getting trashed.   However, just like their families, Arbor will only find himself in even more debt, cheated and exploited by getting involved with Kitten.

The jobs and the industry have long gone.  The power station towers that litter the Blakean landscape may be satanic but they no longer pump out smoke.  All that is left is the detritus and scrap of an earlier industrial age. The great Victorian city of Bradford is now itself on the scrap heap, the remnants of its great past providing the only currency for many of its people.  Although the Victorian grandeur has gone, those other Victorian values – inequality, child Labour, exploitation and poverty are everywhere.

The film has a similar sense of the lyricism of bleak northern landscapes as Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights.  There is a beauty in the mist covered fields dotted with the horses that are used for scrapping and racing, against the back drop of pylons and electricity lines.  This contrasts with the ugliness of the scrap yards  and the traffic congested cities that the boys ride through on Kitten’s cart looking for scrap.

Swifty, who is the perpetual butt of bullying insults from schoolmates for the poverty of his family, has a bond with horses.  Kitten will see this as a means for him to make money in the illegal horse and cart races which take place in the early hours of the morning on motorways (this also provided Clio Barnard with the subject matter for a video work in 2004, called Road Race.  The race shown in the film is a heart in the mouth  adrenalin fuelled chariot ride as two young men with a horse and cart are followed at high speed by rival supporters in cars blaring horns and bashing into each other as if it was a demolition derby.

The Selfish Giant of the title can be read as Kitten  – he is after all the one who is prepared to sacrifice young boys to his own greed or at least to make ends meet.  However it can equally be read as society – a society that has allowed mass unemployment with all the misery that has caused, and then permitted loan sharks and HP companies to make that misery a shit load worse than it already is.

Although The Selfish Giant is in the tradition of Ken Loach’s social realist films and the heavily signposted tragic ending is heart wrenching, it also though has a lyricism and poetic style rises above mere naturalism into a fable for our times.

The two boys are fantastic – natural, funny and real.  The principal adults around them are also excellent.   The direction is expert – allowing the characters to breath but keeping a rhythm and momentum towards the inevitable  tragic ending as Arbor gets himself in deeper and deeper.

In the group of people with whom I saw the film, the reactions to it were mixed.  For me though, I doubt very much whether there will be a better British film this year and few better films full stop.  This is a film of a power I think that one of the other great female directors of the moment, Andrea Arnold, has come close to making so far in her career (in particular the first half of Wuthering Heights) but yet not quite managed.  Barnard is a major talent.  I cannot recommend The Selfish Giant highly enough.

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