The Selfish Giant: an achievement of epic proportions

Sarah Holland

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British social-realist cinema has been strong in recent years. Andrea Arnold is rightly held in high esteem for the stunning Red Road and Fish Tank, and Clio Barnard continues this trend with her debut feature, The Selfish Giant.

The characters and setting are fittingly Loachian: a deprived area of Bradford where two young boys, Arbor (Conner Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas), find themselves cast out by the school system. Yet it is not in any way an imitation of well-worn, grit-flick tropes. It is a distinct work in its own right, Barnard bringing a unique fierceness to her filmmaking. With stunning visuals and layered themes, she goes straight to the heart of the story without ever brushing on sentiment.

Arbor is smart and self-aware, while Swifty is a soft-hearted soul with a love of horses. The two act as each other’s refuge. Arbor is drawn to the dangerous world of scrap-metal dealing which provides him a sense purpose by way of meagre financial reward. He stumbles across a metal yard run by the ruthless Kitten (Sean Gilder), a despicable character who exploits the two boys by allowing them to undertake dangerous work: getting Arbor to steal power cables and Swifty to ride his horse in dodgy gambling races. In one of the most moving scenes, they earn a mere £110 for their efforts: they revel in their riches, elated by the fact they can buy Swifty’s mum a new sofa.

The film was inspired by Oscar Wilde’s beautiful children’s fable of the same name, set in a garden that permanently becomes winter when the titular giant refuses to let children play in it. The link is tenuous but if you look closely its influence appears in subtle ways: ‘The poor children had now nowhere to play. They tried to play on the road, but the road was very dusty and full of hard stones, and they did not like it.’ Here, Arbor and Swifty also have nowhere to go, nothing to do, and no one to rely on in their empty surroundings.

The Selfish Giant is a profoundly original piece of British filmmaking that thoroughly immerses the viewer in an authentic vision of first-world poverty. The cinematography is haunting, with bold and ghostly images of the post-industrial landscape, scattered with disused power stations. Yet, it can still be surprisingly funny, too. Easily one of the best films of 2013, it showcases one of the most confident new directors British cinema has produced in decades.

Sarah Holland is a film writer based in Brighton. She blogs at Girl On Film.

Watch the trailer for The Selfish Giant

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