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'The Selfish Giant': The Part of England Everyone Forgot

Clio Barnard's masterpiece about rural England

IFC/Sundance Selects

Like becalmed invaders from space, cooling towers loom over the sour meadows outside Bradford in England. A mist is gathered in the air and it matches the hum of a nearby power station. But sheep and horses graze in the meadows and some of the wild boys in the area go there trying to steal the precious power cable. It is a dangerous game because of the cable’s high voltage. But the bright metal inside is worth big money—wads of notes—from Kitten, the swaggering boss of a scrap metal yard. There are two boys, Arbor and Swifty—the one like a fox, the other a bear in the making—who take the chance. The Selfish Giant is the story of their friendship (the one good thing in their lives), and it will find its climax in the dank wasteland of those meadows.

Bradford is an old city in Yorkshire, in the north. It was once a hub of the textile industry, but that is past now. The factories are closed, some are just abandoned, and unemployment in the area can be as high as twenty-five percent. About a quarter of the population is Asian. Arbor is a lively wreck—a lean, gingery boy, with attention deficit disorder, inclined to do without his drugs because he despises anything in his society that claims to be caring or helpful. His chum, Swifty, is older, bulkier, gentler, and kinder, and he tries to help Arbor for reasons he hardly bothers to work out. When we first see them, Arbor is on the floor beneath his bed, beating at the box spring and crying out in anger and frustration. Swifty urges peace on him in just the way he talks to horses. Swifty is a natural with those animals and he dreams of being the rider in sulky races the locals run on the highways with cars threatening the horses. That is how he knows Kitten, the most obvious selfish giant in the film.

This is the second feature film by Clio Barnard—three years ago she made The Arbor, also set in Bradford, equally devoted to underprivileged lives and fascinated by language. One of the most notable things about this new film is that, though filmed in a version of the English language, it has subtitles in America. We are lucky. The film went without subtitles in Britain, where many struggled to hear what was being said. These boys talk in broken roars and gasps, and their constant foul-mouthing is just one sign of their hopelessness. Their school has given up on both of them. They are excluded because they seem too wild and indifferent to education. But there have always been streets and parts of town in Bradford that the city disowns and starves of money. It’s a fucking tough world.

The Selfish Giant refers to an Oscar Wilde story, but the natural affinity in this magnificent and heartbreaking film is to Dickens. Arbor is a Dodger, but with precious little art. Kitten is a modern Fagin. But the London of Oliver Twist has given way to a view of the north of England that sees the dereliction, the disowning, and the tragic bitterness. (Yes, Arbor is a talisman name for Barnard, but it is also a source of rueful irony, for nothing in these two films has provided anything like the security and nurturing we associate with the word “arbor.” The boy Arbor could as easily be called “Loner” or “Dickhead.”)

The Arbor was an unprecedented film. At first it looked like a documentary about Andrea Dunbar, a young woman who escaped Bradford to write plays for London. She flourished briefly but Bradford and booze called her back, and she was dead of a brain hemorrhage after a night at the pub when she was only twenty-nine. She had had three children by three different men, and much of The Arbor consists of sound interviews with them and other people who knew Andrea, with the words being lip-synched by actors. I know, this seems too odd for its own good—but The Arbor is not just innovative, it is also unbearably touching, and one of those films that kicks the art of film forward. The ancient orthodoxy that sound and picture must always be married is now as broken and dubious as marriage itself.

The Selfish Giant is more restrained formally, but I think it is the better of the two films. Clio Barnard (who teaches at the University of Kent) admits to the influence of Ken Loach, and often in this new film I was reminded of Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine (1946), another movie about wayward boys—and one of them is crazy for horses. It was a keynote of Italian neorealist films like Shoeshine that they used non-professional actors and made them seem essential. One fascinating tension in The Selfish Giant is that, just as the busy subtitling is a creative intervention, and a concession to being acceptable, so in the film itself it is impossible to detect acting or even any mediating effort to make the story sentimental or comfortable. So many films these days boast of being based on fact, when we know that they are fake from the first frame. But Clio Barnard does little else but thrust us into life itself and the remoteness of caring in these boys’ lives.

List Film
Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas in The Selfish Giant

The Wilde story concerns a Giant who owns a beautiful garden where children play in his absence. But when he comes back from a trip he decides that the garden is his alone, and so he bans the children. The problem is that without them the garden withers. As I said, Kitten (Sean Gilder), a small-time racketeer in stolen scrap and a patron of sulky races, is a version of this Wildean Giant, although he discovers a tiny way in which he can be a friend to the boys. You could argue that Britain itself is the real Giant and the true villain, in taking the landscape and the former prosperity of Yorkshire and turning it into a wasteland.

Barnard is not as overtly politicized as Ken Loach, and there is no question that the textile industry in Bradford declined as it became possible and then essential to have clothes made far more cheaply in parts of the world where exploitation was more complete. But in the age of Margaret Thatcher, there was a campaign against the North (much of which traditionally voted Labor) and against the last old industry, coal-mining, and today there is a state of impoverished neglect in some of the best rural parts of Britain that amounts to official indifference. The beauties in the English landscape are a treasury, but viewers in this country should be wary of believing that everything looks like Downton Abbey or Brideshead. There are stately buildings in Bradford, to be sure. But Clio Barnard shows us the parts no tourist would be encouraged to visit. It is her genius that she can see poetry in this desolation just as she can tell us so much about people and their ties by looking at their hands.

The Arbor came to America; it had several fine reviews and it won the award for best new documentarian at the Tribeca Film Festival—though it was inadequate to regard the film as a documentary. The Selfish Giant is neither comfortable nor encouraging, especially if you are inclined to take an idyllic view of Britain. But after two piercing films it is clear that Clio Barnard (who was actually born in America) is one of the best young directors around. Time and again, one has the depressing feeling that directors in America nowadays are making movies about old movies and behavior known from the screen. It’s as if the film-makers have never had life experience, or are no longer taught to trust it. Nothing is more threatening to the vitality of the cinema. The Selfish Giant has an austere spiritual certainty that to evade or avoid life is sacrilegious.

The two boys, Conner Chapman (Arbor) and Shaun Thomas (Swifty), had never made a film before. Casting found them in local schools. It feels as if they have been dragged in from the street, reluctant to make a movie, grudging and snarly. I’m sure they will make more films now, and they may become more sophisticated in the way they work. Good luck to them, but let them not forget the rawness and the quality of danger they have here. (The casting director said that Conner Chapman made her think of a boy Peter Mullan.) In this country we have seen Jennifer Lawrence go from Winter’s Bone to Katniss Everdeen and celebrity in just a few years. It is not a matter of what she and these boys deserve. Far more, it is a question of what we the audience need. The Selfish Giant is a film of such power and beauty that there will be no escaping it—so long as you go to see it in the first place. 

David Thomson is the film critic for The New Republic and the author, most recently, of Moments that Made the Movies (Thames & Hudson).