The Selfish Giant (4 stars)

The Selfish Giant

Clio Barnard captures a palpable feeling of human vitality amidst grim post-industrial landscapes

Although loosely inspired by an Oscar Wilde children’s fairy tale, writer-director Clio Barnard’s follow-up to her acclaimed experimental debut feature The Arbor fits very much in a hard-hitting social realist tradition, exemplified by the work of Ken Loach, Shane Meadows and the Dardenne Brothers.

Set amidst the housing estates and surrounding countryside of contemporary Bradford, its volatile protagonist is the hyperactive 13-year-old Arbor (Connor Chapman), who comes from a troubled family background. Permanently excluded from school, he and his gentle giant pal Swifty (Shaun Thomas), hit upon a money-making scheme: they begin scavenging scrap metal from their neighbourhood, and sell it to fearsome local dealer Kitten (Sean Gilder). To Arbor’s dismay however, it becomes clear that Kitten regards him as a loose cannon, and favours the horse-loving Swifty.

A tragic predictability pervades the plotting of The Selfish Giant, yet amidst the poverty, greed and quasi-Dickensian exploitation, there’s a palpable feeling of human vitality in adversity captured by Barnard: see for example the horse-and-cart race held at dawn on a motorway, or the entrepreneurial flair displayed by Arbor and Swifty. Propelled by the powerfully credible performances of its non-professional teenage leads, and punctuated with contemplative images of post-industrial landscapes, The Selfish Giant ultimately achieves in its poignant coda a note of unexpected grace.

Limited release from Fri 25 Oct.

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The Selfish Giant

  • 4 stars
  • 2013
  • UK
  • 1h 31min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Clio Barnard
  • Cast: Conner Chapman, Shaun Thomas, Sean Gilder
  • UK release: 25 October 2013

Barnard's fictional début is partly based on Oscar Wilde's story of the same name. Two troubled 13-year-old boys fall under the influence of a shady scrap metal dealer.