It’s safe to say that The Selfish Giant is not your average Oscar Wilde adaptation for the screen. I noticed, for instance, the complete lack of upper-class twits speaking in paradoxes and berating their servants. In their place is a cast of finely-drawn characters struggling to make ends meet in modern Bradford. Like the story that inspired it, this is a morality tale about love and selfishness, played out against a backdrop of towering pylons and scrapheaps that from the beginning suggest there will be no easy answers at the end.
The film only loosely skirts the heavy symbolism of Wilde’s short story, and instead it is the influence of another playwright, Andrea Dunbar, that pervades the film. Dunbar, a Bradford native who died of alcoholism aged 29, was famed for dark portrayals of life on the estates, teeming with violence, booze and sex. The Selfish Giant’s director, Clio Barnard, based her previous film on Dunbar’s life. She called it The Arbor after the estate Dunbar lived and died on. During filming, she befriended a boy who followed the crew on a horse, and adapted his story into this.
Enter Arbor, (Conner Chapman) and his best friend Swifty (Shaun Thomas), two beer-swigging Bradford boys from troubled homes. Swifty is big for his age but bullied for his gentleness: Arbor is more complicated, his jack-the-lad persona a naïve defence against the outside world. Arbor’s brother is a drug addict with debts to pay, and Swifty comes from a large family struggling to support themselves. With both boys needing money, they turn to “scrapping”, in which they recover scrap metal – the most valuable being stolen copper wire.
…who has eyes very much like the horse…
Bradford’s scrapping scene is ruled by Kitten (Sean Gilder), the selfish giant of Wilde’s parable whose high-walled garden of eternal winter is here a gigantic scrap yard crawling with truants. Kitten now owns Swifty’s horse, which he races in illegal and dangerous drag races. The animal-loving Swifty, who has eyes very much like the horse, turns out to be the only one who can race him. Arbor takes to stealing copper from Kitten, starting a chain of events that drag both boys deeper into a netherworld which threatens their friendship.
This being a social realist work, the boys are played by non-actors native to the film’s environment: real scrappers, real truants, who after filming returned to the scrap-yards depicted in the film. Chapman’s angry and restless portrayal gives the film its raw force, whereas Thomas’ gentle expressiveness gives the film its soul. Both the lead actors turn out remarkable performances, although they struggle occasionally with nuance. However, during the more dramatic scenes they do a huge amount by doing so little.
…remaining true to the words of the Selfish Giant’s original author…
All of this is captured using the social realist trademark of shooting hand-held with focus pulls. Although the camera is noticeably shaky in the wider shots, it marries the intimacy of Andrea Arnold’s vision with Lynne Ramsay’s authority. The sound design deftly sketches out Bradford’s landscape, capturing both the ominous threat of violence and the tender human movements that serve to heighten the more brutal scenes. When the film ends we are left in darkness, the sounds of their world filling the cinema for thirty seconds.
This is a film that holds a microphone to life, and its great power is that we too are immersed in Arbor’s world and his problems. What elevates it above many British Realist efforts is that it successfully walks the tight-rope between moulding reality into crowd-pleasing fare and creating a mundane swamp of a plot that abandons craftsmanship for authenticity. Carried by its compelling performances, the film winds its way towards an open ending, remaining true to the words of the Selfish Giant’s original author: the truth is rarely pure and never simple.