First published by EyeforFilm.
Oscar Wilde’s 1888 Christian short story for children The Selfish Giant may have ‘inspired’ Clio Barnard’s feature of the same name, but the relationship between the two is hardly obvious. For a start, it is not clear who the Giant is. It could be Swifty (Shaun Thomas), the big, gentle ‘pikey’ lad who alone is capable of calming his best friend, the ADHD-afflicted, tantrum-prone Arbor (Connor Chapman). Both from differently troubled families, these schoolboys drift into the local underworld of scrap collection and copper wire theft, under the exploitative guidance of metal salvager Kitten (Sean Gilder) – another contender for the role of Giant. Or it might be the school that so readily excludes these boys when they clearly need all the support that they can get. Yet it is diminutive, hyperactive Arbor who, like Wilde’s Giant, isolates himself through selfish behaviour before finding a bleak sort of redemption through a miraculous phantom intervention.
Ultimately, the Wildean connection is more an elliptical, oblique evocation than anything approaching a retelling, while the film’s fairytale origins are concealed in a rigorously realist mode (aside from one ghostly visitation, conjured by trauma, anguish and longing). For here the Giant’s Edenic garden has been replaced by the junk-strewn, industrialised pasturelands on the edge of Bradford.
While the boys live on the same estate (Brafferton Arbor) from which Barnard’s feature debut – as well as this follow-up’s protagonist – took their names, if anything The Arbor (2010), though a documentary, offered far more in the way of surreal fantasy and formal adventurousness than is ever seen in the fictions of The Selfish Giant. Here working-class woes, Northern grimness and mucky miserabilism create a familiar Loachian vibe, as though all the magic and miracles of a children’s fable had become mired in the realities of British life on the margins – as well as in the tropes of a certain brand of British cinematic naturalism. Evidently, the status quo of this nation’s social fabric does not easily accommodate the happy ending of a story book.
Apart from Mike Eley’s lustrous, lyrical cinematography, The Selfish Giant is also elevated by the central performances of Chapman and Thomas, non-actors discovered by Barnard when she was doing outreach work at Brafferton Arbor’s school. Unlike the characters that they portray, one suspects that these two boys have a bright future – but their real story, a paratext to the film’s own fictions, speaks volumes about the wealth of potential so criminally overlooked, excluded or abandoned by this country in its treatment of, and attitude to, the younger generations.