The Selfish Giant opens to a serene Arcadian scene: horses in a field at twilight, shrouded in mist, munching grass. For a moment, we’re lulled by the mood of an idyll. Then, crash! A cacophony of screaming, thrashing, almost-too-close shot of fists and feet pounding on the underside of a bed; an out-of-control boy jolts us alert.
This is a strong, well-executed film of abandonment, exploitation, friendship and loss. Sounds and visuals play a dramatic role in Clio Barnard’s heart-breaking film. The cinematography, by Mike Eley, is powerful and brilliant. Throughout, a series of still shots emphasize a triptych of crucial elements: black lines of electrical power plants etched on colorful sunsets belie a savage lethality; fog-shrouded nuclear reactors have great explosive potential; and those horses show unexpected tenderness in a harsh environment. Each of these repeated scenes offers us possibilities of the film’s development, which are both ominous and hopeful.
The Selfish Giant shows bald truths of a contemporary, lower-class substrata of life in Northern England. I found it brutal to watch. It is, however, brutality well-placed, on the shoulders of characters and a society in which ugly selfishness is rife.
Arbor (Conner Chapman), of the fist-pounding scene, and his best friend, Swifty, are complicated 13-year-old boys whose bond is the core and the emotional weight of the story. They are lost, victims of the decay around them, deeply devoted to each other. They’re desperate to find a foothold in a world that offers them literally nothing. Wincing and hopeful, we observe their process and are let into their heads.
At the outset, in darkness, the boys secretly watch thieves gather precious electrical wire, and stealthily out-wit them, taking their haul. Goods in hand, they bang on the door of Kitten, the corrupt scrap metal dealer (Sean Gilder), anxious to sell. Kitten is a scary figure. He seethes while he buys. His every move seems tied to exploitation. The boys are willing. In this world, exploiting the exploiter is fair game.
Arbor is hyperactively unstable, unpredictably violent, and paradoxically tender towards his mother whose only parental acumen seems to be neglect. He is puny, a bully who is bullied, and he is in constant motion. Chapman’s performance is amazing! When we watch his lean, young face twist into a sly smile, and then swiftly contort into wildness, we are witnessing a mature performance. And this is his first screen role!
By contrast, Swifty (Shaun Thomas, in an excellent debut performance), is the gentle member of the pair, but an equal accomplice in generating trouble. He’s pudgy, sweet-natured, loyal and has a special kinship with horses. It is this gift that really sets him apart from the urchin Arbor, and makes him particularly valuable to Kitten who needs a steady hand to race his horse, yet another of his illegal activities.
After their first encounter, the boys rent horse and cart from Kitten and scour the city for scrap. Filth, beautifully presented, leaves us feeling queasy and unsettled.
The boys are good at the scrap game and have time for it. Arbor is a truant, kicked out of school and, in an effort to help Swifty find his power, gets Swifty expelled, too. They steal and sell “scrap” with increasing boldness. The plodding horse takes them to the streets, home to dysfunction, and back to the treacherous Kitten for their cash.
Needy for recognition, the boys each present their earnings to their respective mothers, like young cats presenting the feathers and guts of their recent conquests. The mothers are wary: Arbor’s scorns him, Swifty’s whimpers that she wants better for her son, and takes the cash. Siobhan Finneran (taking a break as the evil O’Brien of Downton Abbey) plays Mrs. Swift. Her character reminds us that kindness and love can co-exist with despair, if not transcend it. It’s a small role but a big performance with deep heart that lifts us out of total misery.
Through a palette of greys, Barnard takes us deeper and deeper into the menacing and depressed aspects of this culture. We watch scrap-hunters maneuver for position, see live electrical wires left dangling, and angry men seeking dominance through a terrifying, violent horse race on the street.
Arbor absorbs the nastiness of these relentless surroundings. He becomes greedy and turns his hurt on his friend when Swifty is preferred by Kitten. He ratchets up his escapades, steals from Kitten, and toys with the horses that Swifty loves unconditionally.
The action is slow yet this film keeps our attention, releasing a tension that builds and builds. When the climax arrives sharply and painfully, it’s heart-stopping. There is supreme tragedy, manufactured by Kitten and wrought by the bleakness of this society.
When the credits rolled, I was surprised to see that The Selfish Giant was based on an Oscar Wilde story (one I have not read). While it is impossible for me to compare this film with the Wilde story, I know that Wilde was brilliant at revealing human flaws, first representing them as benign and ultimately exposing their highly dangerous potential. Barnard does the same. The last few scenes allow Arbor the guttural, and also silent, bellows of the bereaved and internally tortured. Then the screen cuts to a protracted black. Yes.
Written and Directed by Clio Barnard, U.K., 2013
Reviewed by Suz on 1/28/2014