The Selfish Giant Cert. 15 Picture house at FACT

  • Running time91 minutes
  • DirectorClio Barnard
  • CastConnor Chapman, Shaun Thomas, Sean Gilder

Clio Barnard follows up docudrama The Arbor with another pitch-perfect portrayal of working-class families in strife. Inspired loosely by Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant, it concerns 13-year-old Bradford lad Arbor (Conner Chapman),
a mouthy rebel who’d rather steal and sell scrap metal than go to school, where he’s largely unwelcome.

Arbor’s best friend is Swifty (Shaun Thomas), a gentle boy twice his size and with half the confidence. Led by Arbor, the pair supply a local scrap dealer, Kitten (Sean Gilder) with their ill-gotten ‘wares’.

Blending social realism with plentiful myth and symbolism, Barnard renders The Selfish Giant both entertaining and deeply moving. Newcomer Chapman is a find as little Arbor, his cocky backchat delivering plenty of laughs to lighten the load, while Thomas, also a first-time actor, brings heart with a terrific performance as Swifty.

The relationship between the two boys is integral to the film’s dramatic impact: there’s affection, but Arbor’s manipulative tendencies conflict with Swifty’s straightforward loyalty. Their character outlines could be straight out of a Mafia thriller and bring an almost unbearable tension at times.

Along the way, the camera pans back to reveal barren industrial wastelands, Arbor and Swifty frequently the only weary travellers with their borrowed horse and cart clip-clopping along the road. Hectic scenes in Arbor’s home form a sharp contrast as his mother weakly begs him to take his medication while his aggressive, drug-abusing brother tries to grab the pills for himself. Meanwhile, Swifty faces an abusive father and a cowering mother.

It is a poignant portrait of kids facing harsh realities. And none come in harsher form than the Selfish Giant himself, the ironically named ‘Kitten’, a man content to send children into dangerous territory for financial gain. A world-weary cynic, Kitten initially regards the boys with contempt but apparently softens when he sees Swifty’s way with horses. Shameless actor Gilder puts in an excellent performance as this casually exploitative man, who shocks even his seen-it-all co-workers as he skims the boys’ pay for “tax at source”.

With The Selfish Giant, Barnard has built on her reputation as an exciting new director, garnering rave reviews at the Cannes Film Festival and winning Best European Film in the Director’s Fortnight section. Comparisons to Ken Loach’s Kes are well-earned, while comic moments recall early Mike Leigh. With her added talent for experimenting with genres, Barnard can now be considered one of Britain’s leading talents and this second success should not be missed.

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