The Selfish Giant

Clio Barnard's kitchen sink adaptation of Oscar Wilde's children's story is not for the faint of heart

As the outstanding British film at Cannes 2013, The Selfish Giant appears to contain many of the elements that draw outside interest to UK cinema.

There is the thread of classic literature in a modern setting, in this case Oscar Wilde’s original short story. The cold, grey horizons of the English north dominate the frame. Bracingly direct, honest performances from unknown young talent, and a passionate focus on story over style, round out the checklist.

In receiving favourable comparisons with Ken Loach, the doyen of British realist cinema, director Clio Barnard’s rich feature debut – centred in the hardscrabble council estates of Bradford – is an outstanding addition to that corner of the national consciousness occupied by Loach’s social parables.

There are heavy shades of This is England’s Thomas Turgoose in the youthful leads. Arbor (Conner Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas) are tough and streetwise yet hugely vulnerable. Like Turgoose’s Shaun in Shane Meadows’s classic ode to 1980s skinhead culture, the two boys exist as precociously scrappy pieces in a larger machine they don’t fully understand.

Both boys are keen to get ahead as quickly as possible in a cruel world where they are not yet men, and it is this ambition that drives them both towards a conclusion with far reaching consequences.

Swifty is a gentler soul from a poor family who does much to offset the hyperactive Arbor’s mood swings and unpredictability. Each has a dysfunctional home life and, in spite of their differing temperaments, they share a loyal bond. The undersized Arbor is so dedicated to his friend that he is expelled from school for defending Swifty from playground ridicule.

With the educational authorities apparently having no plan to deal with Arbor’s ongoing needs, he is free to roam and thus leads Swifty into a quest collecting scrap metal, much of which is stolen. Their fence in this pursuit is the foul-mouthed, cruel Kitten (Sean Gilder) whose scrap yard is a den of low level criminality. Their heads are turned by the perks of this underworld, of easy cash in return for the detritus that deprivation provides.

What transpires is a somewhat meandering tale but one that is never less than fascinating. The scarred northern landscape is almost a breathing entity, home to weathered social housing, giant smoke stacks and even wild horses. A threat of a chill wind or a rain storm is never far away, and through the drizzle Arbor and Swifty make their way, with a nag and a trailer, seeking out those things most people discard.

As Arbor fixates on fat electricity cables in which a fortune resides, tensions arise between the two friends. Swifty’s love for horses draws him into the illegal drag racing circuit, where Kitten spends his time. His skill in the trap offers him an outlet for a talent that the older man admires and intends to exploit. Arbor’s fixation on salvage and profit dwarfs everything else.

It is telling that the yard becomes the focus of their world, for it is on the scrap heap that they now figuratively exist. Abandoned by the system, they are an invisible speck in an underclass on which Barnard is unafraid to train an unyielding focus. Swifty’s father is drowning in debt and the house is replete with children.

Arbor’s mother is a loving one but she is behind the curve when it comes to his whereabouts. There is no judgement here, however. The reasons for Swifty’s poverty are irrelevant, the shadow of drugs in Arbor’s home is only briefly addressed. This is simply life and one cannot be blamed for trying to better it.

In doing so the boys are exposed to harsh, unbending realities. While childhood innocence is not something that either Arbor or Swifty countenance, their naivety leads them down the road of bad business deals and worse. These encounters would unnerve many a young actor, but Chapman and Thomas are astoundingly good. Unpolished, raw and utterly believable.

Chapman in particular displays real grit as a boy with a range of emotional problems who can only ever find peace when hidden under his bed. For all his swagger on the streets, Arbor may just be a skinny, frightened kid. It is Swifty who holds the key to unlocking him. What comes to pass is not for the faint of heart.

The Selfish Giant runs at Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast until November 14.