Film Review: ‘The Selfish Giant’

British social realism gets a welcome shot in the arm this week with the release of Cannes Directors’ Fortnight hit (and LFF select) The Selfish Giant (2013), the new feature from The Arbor (2010) director Clio Barnard. Known for her poignant installation work that blends documentary with a variety of other modes and forms, Barnard brought the Bradford of the late playwright Andrea Dunbar vividly to life with The Arbor, returning to the area once again for a more straightforward, though no less compelling portrayal of working-class life, with Oscar Wilde’s short story of the same name providing the drama’s basic framework.

Central to Barnard’s latest is the friendship between hyperactive 13-year-old Arbor (a superb debut performance from Conner Chapman) and his best friend Swifty (fellow newcomer Shaun Thomas). After one misdemeanour too many at the local secondary school the two boys beg and plead with Kitten (Shameless’ Sean Gilder) – a local scrapdealer and the ‘Selfish Giant’ of the title – to let them work for him collecting copper wiring and other such treasures from the surrounding area. Whilst Arbor is more interested in earning a wage, Swifty becomes attached to one of Kitten’s road-racing horses, eventually taking the reigns ahead of an important meet. Tensions arise between the two boys as their priorities begin to differ.

Blending the Yorkshire-centric concerns of The Arbor with the wild and frenetic thrill of hybrid installation docudrama Road Race, The Selfish Giant rejects the stark glumness of most recent neo-kitchen sink offerings in favour of childish adventure as Arbor and Swifty attempt to flesh out their respective futures. Cheerily cheeky, but at the same time stubborn and argumentative, the former want to prove his money-making credentials to both his beleaguered mother (Rebecca Manley) and himself, whilst the softly-spoken latter is only finds true solace when in the saddle of one of his four-legged friends. With the menacing Kitten clearly favouring Swifty as his next potential star rider (and future cash cow), Arbor goes to more and more extreme lengths to bring in a big haul, ultimately jeopardising more than mere companionship.

Now rightly seen as one of the UK film industry’s brightest directorial talents, Barnard has waited patiently for her time in the spotlight, going as far back as her playful Channel 4 short Random Acts of Intimacy, which saw A-list stars including Isla Fisher mime along to testimonies of one night stands from real member of the public. This deep understanding of the relationship between style and form has remained ever since, and only now can wider audiences get a taste of Barnard’s innovative approach to social cinema. The Selfish Giant’s ever-so melodramatic final third may feel like a regressive backwards step for some given what’s come before, but it barely tarnishes what is one of this year’s best British films – the perfect showcase for both Barnard and her two young leads.

This review was originally published on 14 October, 2013 as part of our London Film Festival coverage.

Daniel Green

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