The Selfish Giant - Guardian Cannes review
Cannes 2013: The Selfish Giant – review
An intensely felt piece of social realism, reinventing Oscar Wilde's story, shows director Clio Barnard growing into one of Britain's best young film-makers
Wilde at heart ... Arbor (Conner Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas) in The Selfish Giant. Photograph: Agatha A. Nitecka
British film-maker Clio Barnard made a sensational debut with The Arbor in 2010, about the troubled dramatist Andrea Dunbar: a brilliant and eerily dreamlike film which won the passionate admiration of David Hare and David Thomson among many others. Actors recreated scenes from Dunbar's life and lip-synched into camera using tape-recorded testimony from Dunbar's friends and family. Now Barnard's intensely anticipated follow-up has arrived at Cannes, showing in the Director's Fortnight strand. It is a variation on a theme by Oscar Wilde, a new secular version of Wilde's children's tale The Selfish Giant, which challenges the audience to rethink how redemption is achieved in a world without Christ and which of its characters the title actually refers to.
- The Selfish Giant
- Production year: 2013
- Country: UK
- Runtime: 91 mins
- Directors: Clio Barnard
- Cast: Conner Chapman, Sean Gilder, Shaun Thomas
This film may not exactly have the sophistication of The Arbor, being a more straightforwardly social realist drama in the super-evolved "Loach 3.0" style of Andrea Arnold or Lynne Ramsay: beautifully photographed and intensely considered and controlled, with urban pastoral landscapes of deprivation transfigured into beauty. )
But any conceivable disappointment that The Selfish Giant is not as formally distinctive as The Arbor is soon swept away. Barnard's storytelling is heartfelt and passionate, fluent and supremely confident and this is a heart-wrenching movie with some stunning set pieces. Arbor and Swifty, played by Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas, are two lads with absent or unsatisfactory dads and they don't fit in at school. Arbor is on medication for his ADHD and aggression issues – medication that suggests an official failure to understand his unhappiness – and he is a seriously bad influence on his mate Swifty, who has a natural love of horses. The boys discover they can make serious cash by pinching bits of metal and selling them to Kitten (Sean Gilder) the big, ferocious dealer who lurks in his scrapyard, a place of perpetual, wintry ugliness. Cynical and greedy Kitten accepts the boys' offerings and is none too concerned about the dirty means of getting them. But Arbor is dismayed when Kitten appears to favour Swifty as a possible jockey in the fantastically dangerous and illegal horse-and-cart drag races he's running.
The race scene itself is a terrific Two Lane Blacktop nail-biter, a bravura black comic nightmare of horses and cars and high-speed desperation and cruelty. When Arbor and Swifty manage to persuade local lads to help them lift a burnt-out car onto the horse-drawn cart and slowly tow it all the way to the yard along the high street – with a traffic jam behind – it is a tremendously managed moment of black comedy.
Of course, it is leading to tragedy, a tragedy of a gruesome and agonising kind. In Wilde's story, it is the discovery of marks on the body, stigmata, which is the turning point. I'm not sure whether Barnard intended her horrifying climax to be a specific allusion to this, or if it matters. But I found it moving in a very similar way to Wilde's story. There is no overt sacrifice and redemption, and by withdrawing the Christian theme, Barnard has created a religion-shaped gap which makes the ending more brutal, a vacuum into which rushes worldly pain but also a worldly sense of what people must try to learn from love and loss. This is a fine film, which cements Barnard's growing reputation as one of Britain's best film-makers.