The Selfish Giant - THR Cannes review
7:35 AM PDT 5/17/2013 by Neil Young
The Bottom Line
Solidly effective addition to Britain's social realism tradition, elevated by excellent performances by the young leads and some unexpectedly poetic touches.
Oscar Wilde may seem an unlikely inspiration for British writer-director Clio Barnard's second feature, a grimy tale of youngsters growing up (too) fast in 21st century urban Yorkshire, but as the aesthete's aesthete famously wrote, "we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."
An absorbing and ultimately moving follow-up to Barnard's well-received docu-fiction hybrid The Arbor (2010) and very loosely inspired by Wilde's Christian fable of the same title, it premiered in competition at Directors' Fortnight in Cannes, where strong early reactions foretell a healthy life on the festival circuit. Limited British arthouse play will be buoyed by enthusiastic critical support, with overseas prospects perhaps strongest in France where audiences are frequently drawn by depictions of the UK's working-class and underclass la Ken Loach and Alan Clarke.
The best-known recent examples to obtain international recognition include youth-focused work by Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank) and Shane Meadows (This Is England). And while Barnard seldom strays far from the sub-genre's well-established template, which dates back to Loach's 1969 Kes, she finds a fresh, topical angle involving the theft of copper ("bright wire") from public places including railway lines and the national power-grid.
The soaring price of such metals in recent years has sparked a lucrative, illicit trade revolving around scrapyards where such materials can be 'fenced' with few questions asked. One such dealer is the gruff 'Kitten' (Sean Gilder), into whose insalubrious orbit are drawn tearaway best pals Arbor (Conner Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas), both around 13.
The pint-sized, motormouthed, enterprisingly resourceful Arbor and the bigger, quieter, more reflective Swifty make for an unlikely but effective brain/brawn duo, somewhat along the lines of George and Lennie from Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. And it's apparent that each have certain skills which the rigidity of tests-based formal education isn't able to harness or utilize - indeed, the main bulk of the narrative takes place after both have been excluded from their local school.
Arbor, who requires medication for what appears to be a form of ADHD, always has his eye out for the main chance and is willing to take any kind of risk for a (preferably) fast buck. Hailing from a family with gypsy roots, Swifty's talents lie in horsemanship - quite handy given the fact that Bradford, though unmistakeably post-industrial and dominated by vast housing projects, is also surprisingly close to nature. This is evocatively illustrated by the calming interludes of horses and fog-enshrouded sheep which punctuate the otherwise lively narrative and provide fine showcases for cinematographer Mike Eley's digital range.
Forsaken opportunities and wasted resources, both human and otherwise, are the underlying themes of Barnard's story, which relies for drama on the increasing hazardousness of Swifty and Arbor's hunt for the near-ubiquitous precious metals. This builds to a shattering third-act catastrophe which, while pointedly foreshadowed, not least via the offscreen electrocution of a hapless foal, packs considerable emotional charge.
Chapman and Thomas's double-act benefits from being placed by Barnard within a keenly-observed social context. One typically deft detail involves a horse-and-cart being driven on a public road, where its presence proves a particular vexation to the driver of a black BMW - the choice of such an expensive auto indicating that, while poverty is widespread in these days of financial crisis, it's actually wealth disparity which is the real "elephant" in the room.
Such films tend to stand or fall on their performances, and Barnard - aided by casting-director Amy Hubbard - has found a couple of rough-edged trump cards in Chapman and Thomas. Relentlessly, defensively foul-mouthed in a manner that would make even David Mamet or The Thick of It's Malcolm Tucker blush, both lads quickly emerge as fully-rounded, entirely believable characters whose friendship rings consistently true on every level.
Downton Abbey devotees will enjoy seeing Siobhan Finneran, devious maid Miss O'Brien, in a rather more sympathetic turn as Swifty's distrait mother - the actress's presence is a direct nod to the Bradford-set Rita Sue and Bob Too (1986). She played Rita, in Alan Clarke's influential film based on writings by The Arbor's subject, tragic playwright Andrea Dunbar.
Press-notes' reference to Gilder's ever-growling Kitten as being the "selfish giant" of the title, however, doesn't really tie in with Wilde's brief fairy-tale at all. Indeed, the whole Wilde 'connection' is at best unhelpful and at worst distracting. Then again, Barnard couldn't really have gone down the traditional default route of naming the movie after her main protagonist, since livewire Arbor was evidently named by Barnard in honor of her own debut. That has to count as another needlessly perplexing little touch in a film whose most consistent strength is its unvarnished directness.