Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Country: United Kingdom
Director: Clio Barnard
Screenplay: Clio Barnard. Inspired by Oscar Wilde's ‘The Selfish Giant.’
Runtime: 91 minutes.
Cast: Conner Chapman, Shaun Thomas, Sean Gilder, Lorraine Ashbourne.
Plot: Friends Arbor and Swifty are expelled from their local school, after a run-in with bullies. Arbor wants to make some cash, and help his troubled family, by working for local scrap merchant and criminal named Kitten; Swifty is more interested in training and racing Kitten’s horses. Taking advantage of their naïveté, Kitten uses the boys to collect scrap and make money through illegal means. When Arbor is cheated, both boys resort to dangerous means with tragic consequences.
Review: It may not dawn on the audience, the first time they view The Selfish Giant, that they are witnessing a great event in contemporary drama. On a first viewing, the achievements of the film seem modest – documenting, like many other films, the hardships of working families in the United Kingdom through the eyes of two young boys. Writer-director Clio Barnard exhibits a light touch in following the passions of the two boys – wilful, angry Arbor and his quest to make money; gentle, troubled Swifty and his love of horses – while passing through the usual elements of troubled families, debt, limited opportunities, an uncaring schooling system, and harsh bullying. The story, loosely based on Oscar Wilde’s short story, seems limited in its ambitions until it reaches its tragic dénouement and devastates the audience. I felt like I had been punched in the stomach; and even now, days after seeing the film, I still replay that critical scene in my mind. The whole film crystallises around that point and reveals itself to be a work of patient, quiet genius.
The plot of the film is slight; and while it documents the travails of the two boys, like the short story the harsh core of the film is the selfish giant of the title – scrap dealer Kitten. A hard, uncompromising man who breeds and trains horses on the side, Kitten is fully engaged in several common but illegal activities of the scrap business and actively profits from stolen materials. To distance himself from any wrongdoing, Kitten encourages the young boys of the community to gather scrap for him, teaching them how to circumvent security measures on cabling and other materials (yes, cabling has a range of anti-theft mechanisms, and is highly valuable). These are the children of Wilde’s story, who perch on the branches of the trees in the giant’s garden, bringing the summer with them. The film is shot in cold blue tones, poetically portraying the run-down estate properties in which the boys live. Grace and beauty is present in the form of the horses over which the camera lingers, and which form the other common element of the film. Just as in the story, it seems miraculous that a man as harsh as Kitten could possess such things of beauty; and he is similarly as jealous in guarding them as the selfish giant of the tale.
My own father grew up in a family of eleven children, with an abusive father who gambled compulsively and ensured that they lived in abject poverty. I don’t think I understood what that meant until seeing the fleeting scenes of Swifty’s family, who live in similar circumstances. That someone can escape those conditions, and create an environment for themselves and their own child that is the opposite of their childhood seems miraculous. Within The Selfish Giant the audience can’t help but become invested in the fate of Swifty, seizing on his talent with horses and racing as a ticket to a better life and creating hopes for him that possibly do not even dawn on the character himself. Shaun Thomas’ performance is impeccable and heartbreaking; managing to encapsulate those most vulnerable moments of childhood.
Conner Chapman, too, is outstanding as the rebellious, foul mouthed, hustler-in-the-making Arbor. Raised in similarly difficult circumstances, with his brother in trouble with an unspecified group, Arbor has every possible factor stacked against him – permanently expelled from school for his behaviour, while defending Swifty, but also happy to be on the streets and making cash from scrap. He has a hard path ahead of him; and the film is delicate in demonstrating how one acquires street smarts through the harshest of lessons. No one, least of all Kitten, has any mercy for a child like Arbor. Sean Gilder is understated but strong in his performance; and the supporting players equally as convincing but restrained. The film, after all, belongs to the friendship of Arbor and Swifty, and their impossible circumstances.
The Selfish Giant is an unassuming turning point in contemporary drama because it perfectly joins classical tragedy with contemporary realism; doing so in a form which is difficult to describe but easy to comprehend as a viewer – a fable or a myth, yes, but also heartbreakingly authentic and visceral in its portrayal of the existential circumstances of its characters. Just as in classical tragedy, the heroes contend vainly against their fates; but unlike those tragedies, it is not the gods or prophecy that stands against them, but cold economic and political reality. The film is one of the greatest examples of catharsis I have witnessed in cinema; embodying the purification of the audiences’ emotions through the tragedy witnessed. I can still feel the deep sadness that overtook me at the close of the film; it may not be pleasurable, but it does have meaning and significance. The Selfish Giant is a film that quietly asks for slow meditation and consideration.
Wilde’s short story is equally as moving, although more obvious in its symbolism. After opening his garden to the children, the giant never sees the young boy among them that he loved on their first meeting. One day, late in the giant’s life and in deepest winter, he glimpses the boy again amongst ‘a tree quite covered with lovely white blossoms.’ The boy is wounded, ‘on the palms of the child’s hands were the prints of two nails, and the prints of two nails were on his little feet.’ The story concludes:
'Who art thou?' said the Giant, and a strange awe fell on him, and he knelt before the little child.
And the child smiled on the Giant, and said to him, 'You let me play once in your garden, to-day you shall come with me to my garden, which is Paradise.'
And when the children ran in that afternoon, they found the Giant lying dead under the tree, all covered with white blossoms.
We dwell in an age of great knowledge, but deep emotional ignorance. Our politics and our positions are formed by our encounters with ideology, and rarely through our encounters with people. When our representatives have changed their mind, and reverse their policies, it is often through a personal reckoning with a human face. The more we distance ourselves from one another, the more important films such as The Selfish Giant become. They are a new form of theatre that call us back to the grounds of our being with others, and purify our emotions so that we may reconsider our path.
Rating: Five stars.