Starring: Conner Chapman, Shaun Thomas, Sean Gilder
Loosely inspired by the Oscar Wilde story of the same name, The Selfish Giant tells the story of two teenage best friends; the hyperactive Arbor (Chapman) and gentle giant Swifty (Thomas) who live on a poverty stricken council estate in Bradford struggling to find meaning in anything. When the two are suspended from school for sticking up for one another, they decide to raise some money for themselves by finding scrap metal and selling it to local scrap yard owner Kitten (Gilder). Mainly down to Arbor’s ambition to earn them both more money, the two agree to do Kitten’s dirty work by stealing electrical cables, while Swifty’s knowledge of horses proves useful and he is asked to ride Kitten’s race horse. As things seem to be finally looking up for the pair, the usual obstacles of life stand in the way and that along with Arbor’s personality test their friendship and loyalty to one another more than ever.
The hard hitting social realism of Clio Barnard’s feature debut of course will lead to obvious comparisons to the work of directors such as Ken Loach and Kes in particular. However, Barnard does not simply copy and paste, but bring her own voice and stamp to the genre in what is a deeply moving and involving drama. It is of course very bleak in tone and theme, but it is easy to make a film that is bleak for the sake of being bleak. The abusive family members and desperate poverty would risk just being a massive lazy cliché in lesser hands; however The Selfish Giant is for me far more than that and is not ashamed to go further. This is a film with genuine heart that embraces the optimism and ambition of its protagonists amongst the extreme poverty and desperation.
Barnard manages to create splendour amongst the obviously grim, there is an element of poetry and beauty in the misty and pylon dominated skyline of the marshes that our two protagonists walk around on. As the narrative develops it may be a little obvious how things will eventually pan out, but how we get to this still sparks a few surprises and it will be impossible to find any viewer that will not be genuinely moved by the heart rending final third. The Selfish Giant is once again proof for me that it is simply great heartfelt story telling and not a huge budget that can make cinema such a rewarding experience.
At the heart of The Selfish Giant are two superb performances from the two leads. Intentionally casted unprofessional actors, the two of them give naturalistic performances that enhance their characters. Arbor is sometimes very difficult to like due to his personality, but his heart is in the right place and his strong bond of friendship with the far more reserved Swifty is the main emotional pillar of the narrative, and is what makes The Selfish Giant such an involving and at times devastating experience.
Deeply moving and gripping from start to finish, The Selfish Giant is a haunting and unashamedly unflinching depiction of life in Broken Britain. With incredible performances from its two leads, Barnard skilfully avoids obvious clichés to produce a drama of real heart that is one of the year’s best.