Anyone familiar with the films of Shane Meadows and Andrea Arnold – not to mention countless other British directors – will be well-prepared for Clio Barnard’s second feature film. The Selfish Giant follows a well-trodden thematic path, fusing industrial cinematography with the kind of grim, kitchen sink realism that’s been a staple of the British film scene for years. As you might expect, the result is as moving – and often as poetic – as it is bleak.
Taking the Oscar Wilde story of the same name as its starting point, The Selfish Giant follows Arbor (Conner Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas), two young lads who try and make some money by gathering material for a local scrap deal (Sean Gilder). Swifty is a gentle, bullied boy with a domineering (and highly unpleasant) father, and Arbor is his troubled and aggressive best friend who lives with his single Mum and drug-addicted elder brother. The two have little to be happy or hopeful for, and there’s a strong sense from the start that society has already given up on them – their bleak lives are mapped out in the disgruntled (or absent) father figures that hover on the film’s periphery like ghosts. There’s no escape and no way out for them, and the claustrophobic setting enforces this; the smog-coated cinematography and constant, foggy shots of the outskirts of Bradford show the stifling nature of the dead-end industrial wasteland the boys inhabit.
While the film’s cinematography is, despite is bleakness, often spectacular (and a great atmosphere-builder), it’s the characters and their relationships that are The Selfish Giant’s real strength. The close friendship between Arbor and Swifty is as moving as it is entirely believable (thanks to a combination of the film’s subtle dialogue and the brilliant performances given by both Chapman and Thomas), and we really end up feeling for both of them; Arbor’s choleric defiance towards any figure of authority (in one particularly amusing scene he makes two police officers take their shoes off before letting them into his Mum’s house) and Swifty’s quiet loyalty make them both characters we want to root for.
Really, the film is hard to fault. It’s not always easy to watch but it’s incredibly well shot throughout (Barnard’s direction is spot on), and the script has enough moments of humour and humanity to prevent it from being too overbearingly bleak. And while there are a couple of moments where the realism wavers slightly – a big choice made by the scrap dealer towards the story’s end seems out of character, for instance – it’s not enough to detract from the film’s understated power.