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The Selfish Giant - Film Review

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by Richard Leathem (subscribe)
Freelance writer. Melbourne based cinephile. Fond of food.
Published July 27th 2014
Oscar Wilde like you've never seen before
Director: Clio Barnard (The Arbor)
Cast: Conner Chapman, Shaun Thomas, Sean Gilder, Siobhan Finneran

An Oscar Wilde fable gets re-imagined as Northern English miserablism in The Selfish Giant. Similarities with the source material are almost non-existent and in any event you'll know exactly where this relentlessly bleak story is heading.

selfish giant conner chapman
Conner Chapman as Arbor in a rare quiet moment


The town is Bradford, Yorkshire, unemployment is rife, the skies are grey and the streets are full of discarded trash. In this world lives mouthy Arbor. Although he's been kicked out of school for his violent, mischievous ways, he's not concerned about his future. He has a plan to keep the debt collectors from his mother's door by bringing in cash collecting metal debris and selling it to the local scrap yard. The yard is owned by the hard-as-nails Kitten (a misnomer if ever there was one). He's like a modern day Fagan, exploiting desperate kids whenever he can.

Actually, everyone is hard-as-nails in this grimy town. The men talk to their wives like they're stray dogs and the wives pay it forward to their kids. At least Arbor has a sharp, ferocious wit about him which is pretty entertaining when he's talking back to authority figures, and his ADHD lends him a level of sympathy despite his aggressive character.

selfish giant conner chapman
Arbor with best mate Swifty (Shaun Thomas)


Not quite so sharp is his best friend Swifty, who may nevertheless have a shot at life if he can just resist Arbor's bad influence enough to stay in school. More promising than a standard education though is Swifty's gift with horses. He could conceivably land himself a dream career, not that this means anything to Arbor who just wants the bigger and stronger Swifty to do the heavy lifting required to collect copper on a grand scale.

Director Clio Barnard has been praised for the gritty realism of her fiction feature debut, but despite the admirable verisimilitude, this is a path that Ken Loach and others have walked down many times before. The performances are all brilliant, especially young Conner Chapman who could become Barnard's muse in much the same way that Thomas Turgoose has appeared in many Shane Meadows projects since his impressive debut in This is England.

selfish giant


There's a bit of self referencing going on here. The main character is named after Barnard's 2010 doco The Arbor, based on the life of playwright Andrea Dunbar. Dunbar's most famous play was Rita, Sue and Bob, Too. One of that film's stars, Siobhan Finneran (better known as O'Brien in Downton Abbey), plays Swifty's mum here.

No doubt The Selfish Giant represents existing problems in lower working class England, but whether you walk out of this feeling like you've witnessed something fresh and new is another matter. Maybe this will be a revelation to a generation that missed the Thatcher-era of angry young filmmakers. Others may want to miss the whole depressing experience.





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Why? Realist British cinema
Where: At selected cinemas
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