The Selfish Giant – Clio Barnard – Taking inspiration from her previous, award-winning film The Arbor and the Oscar Wilde short story of the title, Barnard’s second feature follows the relationship of two young boys as they drop out of school and try to make money from scrap metal. Taking place, like The Arbor, in Bradford, the cinematography of Mike Eley conjures its landscape with a poeticised reaslism comparable to the work of Robbi Ryan (Andrea Arnold’s regular director of photography). It uses a handheld honesty to express a tangible ‘grit’ of textures; whether it is the tangled metal wires or upturned washing machines hauled on to the rusting scrapheap, or the slide of muddied grass under drizzle and slipping foot, it is felt. Between this palpable style and the more patient shots, lingering over fields, humming pylons or the ominous grey power plant draped in fog, Barnard creates an unforgettable and haunting portrayal – for such naturalism to build itself a powerfully accumulative potency suggests a genuine directorial control and talent. The film’s social realism calls to mind the influence of Ken Loach, while also sitting comfortably alongside the equally striking work of Andrea Arnold.
Not only does the film confidently evoke its own memorable visual style, but also, at its centre are two fantastic performances by the two young boys, Arbor (Conner Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas). The two boys were recruited from Buttershaw and another nearby estate, they embody their characters with startling energy and sensitivity (apparently roles that were opposite to their natural personalities, Barnard describes Connor as ‘shy and reserved’, whereas Shaun ‘is the opposite of his more meek character’). The bickering, playful and fiercely loyal friendship is beautifully acted with an improvised, entertaining and always believable realism. This nuanced authenticity ocassionaly becomes redolent of Shane Meadows’ This is England (and its darker, televised continuation). However, unlike Meadows’ films, there is a more pared down visual and narrative simplicity to The Selfish Giant, resonating like its literary source as a poignant fable, more comparable – in this light – to the films of the Dardenne brothers. Ultimately, comparison and influence are merely distracting touchstones in an effort to convey this powerful film. There is a spirited and roughly honest humanism to its simple story, with moments of humour alongside its sadness. It definitely fits the category of one of those films which become increasingly affecting, hours and days after viewing. The still shot of a horse, tied to its empty cart and dwarfed beneath the power plant – its two towers swallowed in fog, remains a lonely and portentous image which, like the film, is hard to forget. 8.5/10