The Selfish Giant (2013) – Film Review

Selfish Giant

An often explored topic on British screens is the cultural divide between the upper and the lower classes, the economic hardship it creates and the negativity that emerges out of desperation for those in need. Based on the Oscar Wilde story of the same name, “The Selfish Giant” produces an impassioned and sophisticated insight into such struggle.

Following the lives of two teenagers Arbor (Conner Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas), who after being excluded from school discover an underhanded moneymaking opportunity: Sourcing scrap metal by meeting local dealer and dubious criminal Kitten (Sean Gilder). Director Clio Barnard utilises an atmospheric opening with scenery reminiscent of the Sahara at night, only for us to soon discover it is the picturesque countryside of rural Bradford. This beauty morphs into the smoggy gloom of industrial working class Britain and the labouring colour of the film consistently hangs over the young protagonists. We hear rough British voices slurping their way through a couple of ‘tinnies’ and galloping through the pastoral fields on a stolen horse; the introductory scene is a warped image of conventional harmful stereotypes regarding ‘broken Britain’.

Choices of cinematic composition are fantastic. In one instance, barbed wire in soft focus hangs above the two boys in a cylindrical shape, foreshadowing their lives as a tunnel of entrapment. Their thievery and adventure sees them channel further into the ‘wire’ at great risk of being stung. Other symbolic shots such as cuts to metal fences and their general obsession with scrap metal expresses their immersion in a hardened environment and surroundings that typify the social circumstance from which they are born. From the outset there is a powerfully crafted soundscape. An amalgamation of alarms, sirens and dogs barking mean the violent ambient sounds are always in our subconscious. Incessant swearing, heated accusations and threats form a body of noise that not only emphasises the endeavour within their class, but highlights the filmmaker’s poetic and selective use of silence.

Arbor possesses a youthful arrogance, a world beating cockiness in the beginning of his pubescence that grants him a disrespectful and hateful attitude, often spurning surprising wit. “Put your shoes back on” is one of his many commands to interrogative police officers investigating his incriminating behaviour. Taking tablets for his hyperactivity disorder is well complimented by close-ups of his fidgeting and energetic movements, reminding the audience of the boy’s potential to lash out at any time. Chapman’s performance holds no bars and his ruthless dismissal of his mother Mary (Rebecca Manley) and debt entangled brother (Elliot Tittensor) only stresses his intense predicament. Swifty is a “soft”, more sensitive sidekick who is bullied for his weight and his “inbred retard” family. His affinity for horses leads him to amateur harness racing for Kitten and the chance to saddle up on the dealer’s prized competitor “Diesel”. The pair’s fixation with horses is uncharacteristically noble for such a rough and masculine upbringing, especially when surrounded by a virile supporting cast including Hollywood’s gruffest voice Ralph Ineson. This notion bares similarities to the 1969 film “Kes” where the delinquent young schoolboy with nothing else, finds solace in a pet Kestrel. “Fish Tank” from 2009, in which a horse tethered and tied by gypsies symbolises the idea of inaccessible freedom in the young girl’s constricting world. Such imagery epitomises in political and societal conflicts, the dark depths of British history; how people unearth beauty and forget themselves with the aide of nature.

Swifty and Arbor’s conflicting quests for discovering spiritual identity and monetary gain test the boundaries of their friendship and their ability to evade punishment for their law breaking antics. Barnard’s piece was a selection at this year’s Cannes Festival and if anything, the Bafta nominated drama that so masterfully mirrors its own nation deserves further recognition across the globe. With a plethora of strong television actors such as “Downton Abbey’s” Siobhan Finneran and Lorraine Ashbourne from the recent BBC “Jane Eyre” adaptation, the skilful direction combines all of these talents and produces a playful yet emotive stunner.

IMDB Rating: 7.4

My Rating: 8

Max Hilton


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