The Selfish Giant

The Selfish Giant


Oscar Wilde and scrap metal dealing might not appear to have much in common. Nonetheless, they’ve been united by writer/director Clio Barnard in her first non-documentary feature, The Selfish Giant.

Based very loosely on Wilde’s short story, the film follows two 12 year olds, Arbor (Conner Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas), as they skive off school and roam the bleaker parts of Bradford. By chance, they become involved in both the scrap metal trade and illicit horse racing with a gruff, dangerous local, Kitten (Sean Gilder), which offer both thrills and profits not found at school.

Though the narrative is shown through children’s eyes, there is nothing child-like on offer. Instead, we see subtle hierarchies and an entire micro-economy that encourages crime, with fatal consequences. The beautiful, unsentimental cinematography by Mike Eley both complements and emphasises the ugly reality that Barnard depicts.

She is working in a proud tradition of social realism, from Kes to This is England, and shares their visual poetry, though never at the expense of reality. The film avoids music in favour of stunning, bleak landscapes – pylons and all – and thoroughly believable performances from all involved. Chapman and Thomas are utterly convincing in their friendship and hardship, with Chapman’s Arbor being both repellant and sympathetic.

The film is something of a fable, yet there is nothing fabulist or fanciful onscreen. The political undertones are real and angry, as Barnard offers an uncompromising vision of modern poverty in Yorkshire, in all its beauty and bleakness.

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