It is always easy to tell when a director knew exactly what they wanted their film to be; it comes out in the surety of its execution and the high quality of its performances. Loosely inspired by the Oscar Wilde short story of the same name (which you can—and should—read here), Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant is one such film.
In the grey, black, and green of Bradford in Northern England, Arbor (Conner Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas) are each other’s best, and basically only, friends. Arbor has an unspecified behavioural disorder that lends him to violence and moodswings. His mother (Lorraine Ashbourne) haplessly tries to control him and his drug-addicted brother, but struggles on her own.
Swifty is, by contrast, gentle and softly-spoken. His father, amusingly credited as Price Drop Swift (Steve Evets), is loud and brash and his mother (Siobhan Finneran) is meek to the point of seeming perpetually frightened. Early in the film we see that his large family has had their electricity cut off for not paying the bill; this gives you an early idea of the prominence of money in this story.
Arbor and Swifty happen onto the scrap metal game, and Arbor becomes enamoured with the idea of earning a living doing dirty work adults just can’t get away with. They pester Kitten (Sean Gilder), owner of the local junkyard, until he relents and encourages them. Swifty, meanwhile, lines up to train the horse that Kitten has bought and is using to road race.
The Selfish Giant could easily be pigeon-holed as typical English miserabilism, but its ascension above that is unmistakable. Barnard’s control of tone allows for the childhood joy of Arbor and Swifty’s friendship to shine through in a bleak, industrial setting. Cooling towers and power lines sit, graceless and malicious, between the two boys and their futures.
Barnard’s visual style is evocative of the best of recent British cinema, utilising soupy weather to somehow find ethereal splendour in an unforgiving landscape—the perpetual winter of Wilde’s tale. While Barnard has specified the story as being mostly a launching point, its simple beauty and Christ imagery is easily found in the film.
While every actor is on their game here, its two leads are incredible. Both first-time actors, Chapman gives what might be the performance of the year; their unknown status allowing them to inhabit their characters so wholly and affectingly that they almost seem like subjects of a documentary. Thomas’ performance is no mean feat either, delicately evening out the chaos of Chapman’s work.
Arbor exists in the moral grey that intersects poverty and youth; his impetuous single-mindedness born of his age, exacerbated by illness, and nurtured by a socio-economic climate that claws at his ankles, trying to drag him to the same fate as his brother. But at the same time, he is more playful than ruthless, more scrappy than miscreant.
Barnard’s brilliant script makes for tight, economic story-telling; in just 91 minutes, the story blossoms as organically as flowers in The Selfish Giant’s garden come springtime. Each character has depth and definition, a vital role to play in Arbor and Swifty’s shared life. It’s a brutal, gorgeous, sui generis work that stands tall as one of year’s best films.
In spite of its characteristic melancholy, The Selfish Giant is not devoid of hope. It elegantly tackles class issues and the currency of wealth and power, both literal and metaphoric, in impoverished communities. But it offers growth, a glimmer of possibility clinging to the horizon beyond its climactic events that will leave you an emotional wreck.
It’s a phenomenal piece of cinema anchored by a tour de force performance, but in such an unassuming form it may not receive the recognition it deserves. But the potency of The Selfish Giant will be perpetual, like the menacing thrum of the power lines that trap the residents of Bradford. In spite of it all, somewhere a flower blooms.
Laurence Barber - follow Laurence on Twitter at @bortlb.