Director/ Writer: Clio Barnard
Starring: Conner Chapman, Shaun Thomas, Sean Gilder, Lorraine Ashbourne, Ian Burfield
Synopsis: Arbor (Chapman) and his friend Swifty (Thomas) discover that there’s easy money in collecting scrap metal. Ignoring school, they start to spend most days out searching for scrap, hoping to change their lives slightly and bring some money to their destitute families.
Call it predictability or call it honesty, but for most British films events transpire bleakly. The Selfish Giant – director/writer Clio Barnard’s latest after The Arbor – also fits this mould of English doom and gloom. Set in Bradford, the grey, grimy atmosphere is immediately felt as we follow a young boy named Arbor, prone to fits of anger and without drive in life, trudging through his hometown.
Stumbling on some copper wire, Arbor brings it to a local scrap heap where he gets some money for it. This is where the narrative shifts, and Arbor becomes transfixed on bringing in money from abandoned metal and copper. The lower/working class representation is amazingly handled, showing both those happy to live grafting, with some looking toward education and escape. The latter is seen through Arbor’s best friend, Shifty. A large, slightly slow boy from a desperately bankrupt family, Shifty is a humble, tragic figure. Shaun Thomas playing the role is Shifty, impeccably inhabiting that mentality and physique (all the way down to dirt under his nails). He is our light, contrasting the darkness felt by Arbor’s presence.
The two main characters are so richly interesting; following their stories is a disconcerting delight. They fall into situations we can only pray they escape, but in-keeping with the tone of the film we know they won’t. Fear, hope, morality, evil, love and hate formed the basis of Oscar Wilde’s short story (on which this was based) and Barnard highlights these themes exceptionally. The young actors seem to be playing off what they see and experience in their own lives, though you can also see their bright minds using those themes to perfect their acting.
Raw and immediate, the film never shies away from the more harrowing aspects of life. In this respect it is a tough watch, uncompromising in its dedication to distress. It pinpoints the naivety of youth, along with the aggression of some children. Arbor swears and spits his way through the film, rarely redemptive. It is the moments of innocence and tenderness that prevent The Selfish Giant from becoming a wholly depressing film – the odd moments of gentility are so touching, providing you with some hope.
Encapsulating everything that’s brilliant about British cinema, The Selfish Giant is the latest Kes. Barnard is an amazing director and writer, smart and candid – an ideal quality for this country’s film industry. Photographed beautifully, with a crisp sound design, the film is a paradoxically gorgeous piece of gritty cinema.
Also posted on LiveForFilms