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Film review: The Selfish Giant Print E-mail
Written by Ivan Radford   
Thursday, 24 October 2013 21:36
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Director: Clio Barnard
Cast: Conner Chapman, Shaun Thomas, Sean Gilder, Rebecca Manley
Certificate: 15
"You've been excluded. Permanently," Arbor's mum (Manley) tells her 14 year old son (Chapman). "Sick!" comes the reply. That's the theme of The Selfish Giant, the Oscar Wilde short story that inspired this powerful, moving drama from director Clio Barnard.

In the original, a giant bans children from his garden - only to discover that the world is bleak without them. Spring never comes. Here, Arbor is banned from school along with the his best friend Swifty (Thomas). The former loud and cocky, the latter quiet and thoughtful, the two boys are a believably odd couple, neither of them well suited to school. And so these resourceful pieces of trash find their redemption in rubbish: scrapping for money in the streets to make up for scrapping in the playground.

The pair are welcomed into the yard by the imposing metal dealer, Kitten. Played with flexible morality by the shifty Sean Gilder, Kitten's only too happy to accept their cheap labour - and their rolls of electrical cable, wherever they steal it from. For both boys with their poor homes and neglectful fathers (a perpetually angry Steve Evetts), scrapping becomes the only viable future; a chance to earn a few bob and escape their roots.

The wasted potential is saddest to see in Swifty, who, we discover, has a natural knack for handling horses. Sure enough, Kitten cottons on to that too, recruiting him to race his horse up and down the motorway for quick cash.

Needless to say, things don't end well for any of them.

Dealing out tough blow after tough blow, Barnard's grim tale recalls the realism of Ken Loach more than the fanciful fable of Wilde. Working with cinematographer Mike Eley (who impressed on BBC's 2006 Jane Eyre), Barnard shoots Bradford's grey, muddy landscape with a melancholic beauty, accompanied by Harry Escott's gentle score and the non-stop hum of the electricity pylons hovering over everyone.

But the real eye-openers are the two young leads. Instantly natural and immensely likeable, newcomers Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas look like they've been acting on screen for years - and they deserve to for years to come. Thomas' real life horse whispering skills seamlessly become part of his character, while the astounding Chapman implodes with a violent, rage-fuelled sadness.

After spending the whole film trying to be the man of the house, it's only when Arbor stops growing up and returns to his forgiving mum that Barnard's message becomes clear. The Selfish Giant isn't the exploitative Kitten or the dismissive school, but Britain itself: leaving kids trapped in a rut with no sign of spring, society excludes them. Permanently. As Arbor puts it, it's sick. And that growing awareness, coupled with the tangible shock of loss, is heart-rending to witness.

Originally published on For a Clio Barnard interview, head this way.