Film criticism

Walled in
A review of Clio Barnard's adaptation of Oscar Wilde's "The Selfish Giant"

“The poor children had nowhere to play,” reads The Selfish Giant, Oscar Wilde’s 1888 fairytale. After the titular giant has built a high wall around his lovely garden of fruit and flowers, the children “tried to play on the road, but the road was very dusty and full of hard stones, and they did not like it”. ‘Poor’ in Wilde’s usage means pitiable, forlorn; in Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant ‘poor’ means impoverished. The Selfish Giant is a film set in Bradford, West Yorkshire, and the two children at its centre are, in the director’s words, “on the margins of the margins”.

Arbor (Conner Chapman) is short, blond and cocky. He’s also hyperactive and prone to fits of rage that turn his small body rigid. His best friend is Swifty (Shaun Thomas), a taller, larger, brown-haired boy whom many people, including Arbor, call “soft”. Other lads bully Swifty relentlessly, and when Arbor steps in to defend his friend in a playground fight the two of them end up ‘excluded’, in the bureaucratic parlance, from school. The boys’ mothers are distressed, but Arbor and Swifty are elated. No school means the chance to go out scrapping – collecting bits of reusable metal and junk for an unscrupulous local merchant named Kitten (Sean Gilder). For Swifty and Arbor this scavenging is play, but it is also work: it earns them money and a specifically masculine respect. “I’m a scrapman, me!” crows Arbor, with the confidence of a child who still believes fully in his own imagined worlds.

Barnard’s metaphor is not subtle, but it doesn’t need to be: everything in these boys’ lives has conspired to place them on the scrapheap, and that is where they are. The Selfish Giant takes its place in a long tradition of British social realist cinema, and in many ways it is as bleak as that tradition suggests, but it is also beautiful, and very moving. There is beauty in the Bradford landscape, where roads shade off into fields dotted with sheep and horses that graze incongruously among electricity pylons. This is a film in which the present realities of post-industrial Britain meet the remnants of the country’s pre-industrial past; Arbor and Swifty go scrapping with a horse and cart, and the scrapyard men run illegal harness races on local highways. Barnard’s fascination with these quietly surreal moments echoes the work of Andrea Arnold, another contemporary British director whose films – including the brilliant Fish Tank (2009) – trace the drama of ordinary lives on the urban hinterlands.

Barnard’s first feature-length film, The Arbor (2010), was formally audacious. A biography of the Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar built on verbatim interview transcripts that were lip-synched by actors, it was a film that deliberately confused the boundaries between documentary and fiction. In hewing so close to the daily reality of its two main characters, played by untrained child actors, The Selfish Giant begins to cross the same line from the opposite direction — but it is not a voyeuristic film, nor an exploitative one. Arbor and Swifty are so vivacious, so eager, and they are devoted to each other. Like the children of Wilde’s fairytale, they live to be happy. 

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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