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A melding of fable and realism defines The Selfish Giant

After making waves with the experimental documentary The Arbor, Clio Barnard returns with her debut narrative feature The Selfish Giant, a bleak but delicate tale of gypsy culture in impoverished Northern England. The Selfish Giant adapts the Oscar Wilde fairy tale of the same name; Barnard’s giant is Kitten (Sean Gilder), a scrapyard owner who runs horses on the side and is more than happy exploiting minors to do the kind of work he himself would face jail time for. Two such minors are Arbor (Conner Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas), best friends excluded from school who spend their days scrapping copper and metal for Kitten using horse and cart. Swifty has an affinity for horses and hopes to race Diesel, Kitten’s prize steed; Arbor suffers from a hyperactive disorder and his aggressive tendencies often lead Swifty astray.

The Selfish Giant feels stuck in a moment, at once modern and out of time. Scenes of daily life in Bradford are broken up by slow shots of the industries that surround it – wide shots of scrapyards, railroads and power plants. These breaks place the tale in context while heightening the sense of fairy tale, quickly undercut by dialogue so localised with thick Yorkshire accents that subtitles would not be entirely wasted (credit to the marketing department, who managed to put together a decent trailer using the film’s only easily discernible dialogue).

Barnard’s adaptation is a loose one, pulling more from real life than the source text – not her own but that of 14 year old Matty, a boy Barnard met while filming The Arbor, who spent his days scrapping metal with his horse and best friend. Barnard takes a documentarian approach to her characters, and Arbor and his surroundings feel eerily real. Arbor’s thick accent, the stitching on his Adidas trackpants – worn away, presumably well before his time – all serve to heighten the sense of reality and any emotional punches to come.

If the measure of a film is how much it makes you feel, The Selfish Giant would be an end of year contender for its final act alone. And while a lesser director might exploit the viewer’s emotions and lean on shock as a crutch, Barnard is able have her Big Moment without letting it slip into sensationalism by playing it straight, paying just as much attention to the aftermath as the events that preceded it. The result is a moving portrait of an often forgotten part of Northern England, and the mistakes made early in life which stick with us to the very end.

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