The Selfish Giant (2013)
dir: Clio Barnard
cast: Conner Chapman, Shaun Thomas, Sean Gilder
It happens to be quite fitting that my first review on this blog is about a film set in my hometown of Bradford, UK. I have not been back to the place in nearly two years yet the sights and sounds in the film are all too familiar to me. Bradford is in the heart of “God’s Own Country” (Yorkshire) but in truth, and I say this with a heavy heart, Bradford is a grim, desperate northern city brought to its knees by the harsh decline of the textiles industry in the late 20th century. The result of such continued poverty, expertly portrayed by Clio Barnard in The Selfish Giant, is a destitute town divided by segregated communities embroiled in social unrest and economic deprivation. The characters in the film achingly claw for any prospect that may lift them out of this bitter reality, but ultimately we learn that they are too far engrained in the fabric to escape.
The film charts the misfortunes of two young friends: the hyperactive, inattentive Arbor and his more reserved, laconic sidekick Swifty. Lacking the patience or willingness to stay in school, the two instead wander the streets searching out scrap metal to trade in for what little money they can. Both boys look to use this money to help their ailing families. Arbor’s brother is a heroin addict who constantly cons the wrong people, who in turn terrorise his mother and vandalise her house; Swifty’s father is a drunk and gambler who sells every piece of furniture he owns to fuel his habits. In one scene drenched with dark humour, Swifty is approached by a witty local whilst pushing an empty pram he intends to sell for scrap. The local asks him, “Did you lose that baby, Swifty? Or did your father sell it?” Swifty duly responds by flashing the middle finger! Despite our two young protagonists gracing the screen as foul-mouthed, notorious petty thieves we are immediately sympathetic to their cause and their character. Both are equally cheeky, lippy and chameleon but it is their spirited endeavour to simply make things better for themselves and the people who mean the most to them, in whatever way they can, that captures our belief. Barnard’s punchy script is playful enough to ensure the bleak outlook for Arbor and Swifty does not overwhelm the film’s heartfelt depiction of their treasured friendship.
Arbor and Swifty’s opportunistic knack for seeking out valuable cable and metal attracts the interest of the local scrapyard’s owner, Kitten. Arbor is particularly keen to impress and sets about forming ever more dangerous schemes to steal and pinch at every opportunity. However, Kitten has keener eyes for Swifty’s gentle touch with horses for his illegal horse-and-cart racing ambitions every weekend. As Swifty is mollycoddled by Kitten, Arbor grows jealous and his instincts get the better of him and spiral out of control. As the close-knit bond between the two friends fractures under the harsh realities of the world they live in, Kitten’s greed to exploit the boys takes a hold. Arbor is left alienated and disillusioned by Kitten’s ignorance, his temper tantrums and wild ideas driving his friend Swifty further away from the camaraderie they once shared. Feeling sorry for Arbor after one of his schemes fails terribly, earning a viscous reprimand from Kitten, Swifty agrees to help him with a dangerous cable pinch. The devastating results are grittily envisaged in truly heartbreaking fashion by Barnard. The use of Bradford’s dreary council estates and dark, satanic hill-tops provide haunting interludes to the violent clashes between Arbor, Swifty and Kitten. A world on a knife-edge comes to a crashing crescendo of ill-fated hope and agony one serene morning high up in an empty farmer’s field.
As a work of aesthetic value, The Selfish Giant has earned many comparisons on its recent festival run to the work of Ken Loach. However, it is the eclectic cinematography of Mike Eley at work here more than the direction of Barnard, who evokes a more elaborate majesty on occasion that is far removed from Loach’s filmmaking. A perfect example of this is the thrilling horse-and-cart racing scene that takes place early one misty morning on the quiet roads away from the city. Swifty is at the helm of the horse in epic “Ben Hur” fashion as beat-up cars over-spilling with drunken, no-good men speed and toot alongside him. It is a memorable moment in the film that completes a slow, rousing sequence of the story that sees the two friends cast adrift by the adult world they longed to be a part of at the start of the film.
My outstanding pick of the 2013 Melbourne International Film Festival, The Selfish Giant is a poignant insight into the hardships for all in modern Northern England. Clio Barnard has created two of the most unusually endearing characters in British cinema – the magnitude of the performances by first-time actors Conner Chapman (Arbor) and Shaun Thomas (Swifty) can not be underplayed. They are both astoundingly brilliant. Barnard’s atmospheric use of Bradford and its surrounds, commonly regarded as a dour, desolate wasteland, is just as effective in conveying the story. In achieving excellence in both cinematography and story, she has presented one of the most important films in modern British filmmaking.
Ben Haller, 2013