Superior Scrap: Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant (2013) – DVD review
The ‘selfish’ is a misnomer – this is inclusive, empathetic British cinema at its best – but the ‘giant’ is bang-on: this little film stands tall.
The Selfish Giant
(Clio Barnard, 2013)
Just when you think British kitchen-sink drama has been done to death, along comes a film that reminds you why the social realist tradition is something to be proud of. The Selfish Giant, in its barest outline, conforms to every cliché in the genre – poverty, despair and tragedy – but it’s all in the telling: soulful, sensitive and an implicit criticism of the society that produced it.
Clio Barnard takes a short story by Oscar Wilde and re-imagines it in the present day, except that it scarcely looks like 2013. Set in the fag-end of Bradford, its tale of two scruffy teenage boys, Arbor (Conner Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas), collecting scrap metal on a horse and cart feels closer to the era in which Wilde wrote. The imagery is Victorian: stern Yorkshire landscapes out of Brontë, a brusque metal merchant with a Dickensian vibe.
The irony is that Wilde’s book was a children’s fable, and nothing like the work of his near-contemporaries. Instead, he told of a giant who builds a wall to keep out children but grudgingly befriends one of them and is ultimately redeemed of his selfishness. On the level of plot those events have an oblique connection to what happens here, but in many ways Barnard’s entire film takes place outside of the garden.
If anything, the ‘giant’ here is a pylon that Arbor dreams of raiding for its copper: a symbol of affluence and aspiration, carrying progress over their heads. Revealingly, Swifty’s family can’t afford to pay their bills; note also that he has a trampoline in his garden but hasn’t the energy or inclination to use it. After all, every jump up comes with its corresponding fall back to earth.
A female director; a gay author; a tale of truants excluded from school, of ‘pikies’ holding illegal cart races, of thieving as a way of life. This is the Tory Government’s worst nightmare – but it’s one they wouldn’t deign to even visit. Authority figures are told to fuck off or sarcastically tolerated (when a policeman shows up to caution him, Arbor seizes control by ordering him to take his shoes off); they are strangers in a Wild West town, a point subliminally echoed by the tan leather jacket worn by Sean Gilder’s Kitten. Arbor, to use the ideology of David Cameron, is both striver and shirker, opting out of a system that can offer him nothing in order to find a paradigm where the odds are more in his favour.
This is a familiar enough world from TV’s Shameless and Barnard actively courts the comparison by casting two of that show’s cast (Gilder, Elliott Tittensor) in major roles. But there’s none of the flippant, cartoonish celebration of bad-boy lifestyles. Events are portrayed with matter-of-factness, with Barnard directing with the same earthy vernacular with which the characters speak: the cruel gallows wit of people with nothing. Her understated direction is at its best plonked in the middle of a kitchen in the middle of an explosive but somehow endearing argument, as family members lob insults with the prickly precision that is reserved for people they love. At the centre are Chapman and Thomas, the best child actors in a British film since Thomas Turgoose in This Is England.
It sounds depressing but Barnard likewise loves these characters and takes the time to present them. Early on, she draws attention to the battered trainers that Arbor wears to school. Indeed, the only pair of shoes he owns – as sad and abject a symbol of poverty as it’s possible to get. Except that the rest of the film is a study of Arbor in motion. He is using those shoes, wearing them down in the pursuit of something better. The film’s signature shot sees Barnard park her camera ahead of the boys, patiently waiting for them to walk forward, willing them to arrive at their destination. While the final act brings pain, there’s something noble and mythic about Arbor’s refusal to give up.