By Simon Miraudo
March 10, 2014
Clio Barnard’s variation on Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant transplants the pastoral fable to depressing, modern day Northern England. Short story scholars, however, shouldn’t look for specific comparisons between the two takes. They are few and far between. In Barnard’s telling, newcomer Conner Chapman plays Arbor, an unhinged kid for whom the term ne’er-do-well would be too generous (implying that he fails to do good, when in reality he actively does bad). After getting permanently excluded from school, he starts earning petty cash by finding (or stealing) copper and taking it to the local junkyard. There, owner Kitten (Sean Gilder) happily turns a blind eye to the illegal activity of the many street urchins that make their way inside his gates with various valuable loot.
Arbor’s trusty lieutenant, the kindly, slightly dim Swifty (Shaun Thomas), joins in on the fun, despite being allowed to return to class when his 10-day suspension is up. With his chaotic home as evidence, he doesn’t see finishing school as offering him all that much more than what working at the junkyard might, and the promise of being able to ride Kitten’s precious horse in a street race is too appealing to pass up. Swifty willingly throws his life away and the Rottweiler-like Arbor watches him do it.
Exceptionally bleak, The Selfish Giant could only be considered a crowd-pleaser when compared to Barnard’s previous flick, The Arbor (a formally inventive and devastating film experiment that examined the aftershocks of playwright Andrea Dunbar’s early death at 29, specifically in her children and eventual grandchildren). Neither movie is ‘lazy Friday night’ material, but certainly ‘attentive, engaging, profound Friday night’ material.
Somehow ferocious and coarse yet still delicate and often beautiful, The Selfish Giant relays a tragic tale with great power. Barnard asks much of her young stars, specifically Chapman, and she’s rewarded with performances of many varying, complex layers. Her picture is elevated above the ranks of other so-called English ‘poverty pornos’ by treating its protagonists humanely and acknowledging both their minor triumphs and massive losses. A fine companion piece to the Dardenne brothers‘ The Kid with a Bike, too.
The Selfish Giant plays the Perth International Arts Festival from March 10, 2014.