Film review: The Selfish Giant - it's grim but gripping up North

4.00

Clio Barnard, 91mins. Starring: Conner Chapman, Shaun Thomas, Sean Gilder (15)

It's a long way from the Victorian England of Oscar Wilde to the Buttershaw Estate in Bradford, the setting of Clio Barnard's updated version of Wilde's fairy tale. The wonder of Barnard's very moving film is that, although shot in gritty realist fashion against a backcloth of extreme deprivation, it is true to the spirit of Wilde's story.

Barnard elicits magnificent performances from her two young leads, Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas. They play Arbor and Swifty, 13-year-old kids excluded from school and forced to fend for themselves. Arbor is foul-mouthed, truculent and abrasive. To the authorities, he is simply a troublemaker who deserves to be pushed as far away from mainstream society as possible.

Barnard, though, shows an entirely different side to his personality. He is a teenage entrepreneur, resourceful, hard-working, loyal to his friend, devoted to his mum, and with a sense of defiance that often makes him seem like a pint-sized version of Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Like Finney's Arthur Seaton, he doesn't want to let the bastards grind him down. Thomas's Swifty is good- natured and trusting. He is also overweight and a victim of bullying.

Together, during their enforced absence from school, the boys enter the scrap-metal business, collecting bric à brac for local scrap merchant Kitten (Sean Gilder from TV's Shameless). He's a brutal and manipulative figure, a "bastard" as Arbor quickly realises, but also the only one to give the boys a chance (albeit for his own selfish reasons).

The world depicted in A Selfish Giant is very bleak. Unemployment is rife, one reason why there is such ferocious competition in the scrap business. Copper wire that can be stolen (at risk of electrocution) from power lines is the new gold that the scrap dealers are pursuing in their version of a Klondike rush.

The boys' mothers are struggling with the rent. Bailiffs, police officers or social services are continually turning up at their doors. They can't pay their utility bills and are reduced to selling their own furniture to survive. This is a world of smackheads and drunkards in which violence is taken for granted. Arbor encounters it in the playground and, most terrifyingly, in Kitten's yard. He is an adolescent kid and yet is forced to assume responsibilities that adults would balk at.

Even in such settings, Barnard is always looking for the humour and lyricism. The two boys are an odd couple – one small and scrawny, the other very big – who rekindle memories of the friends adrift in Depression-era America in Of Mice and Men. They always stick up for one another.

The scrap merchant's horse serves a similar purpose to the kestrel in Ken Loach's Kes (1969). That's to say, it gives the characters a perspective beyond that of their brutal everyday world and a connection to the natural world.

Kitten himself has a passion for trotting. In the film's most spectacular set piece, we see trotting horses racing at dawn down a public road with an army of cars and vans following behind it. Kitten's motivation is money – he has gambled heavily on the race – but the trotting race is the only occasion in the film in which we see him away from his scrap yard. When Arbor is shown grooming the horse or Swifty whispering to it, trying to calm it down, they too are able to forget about their predicament.

At times, cinematographer Mike Eley, who also worked on Ken Loach's The Navigators, shoots the film as if it's a kids' adventure story, not just a grim parable about excluded children. He has an eye for landscape and for poetic and jarring juxtapositions. We see the horse and cart turn up at the school or trundling down the Bradford roads, leaving a huge traffic jam in its wake. There are spectacular shots of crepuscular Yorkshire skies that make even huge pylons and factory chimneys seem poetic.

Barnard was partly inspired to make A Selfish Giant after reading Wilde's story to her own children. The other main spark was her experience shooting her previous feature The Arbor (2010), her documentary/performance piece about the Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar, who wrote the screenplay for Alan Clarke's Rita, Sue and Bob Too! It's an unlikely but rewarding collision of influences. The film still just about has the quality of a fairy tale. Arbor and Swifty are the children with nowhere to play. Kitten the scrap merchant is the selfish giant who scares away the seasons. At the same time, there is a polemical dimension here – an obvious anger at the way the kids are abandoned and let down by a system that has no interest in them.

In its weaker moments, the film takes on the quality of a Victorian morality fable. There is an underlying sentimentality here that isn't entirely excised. Gilder's character has a touch of Oliver Twist's Bill Sikes about him and a Nancy-like wife who always looks tenderly at the kids, even as her husband rips them off or threatens them.

The Selfish Giant isn't exactly a film pitched at kids. One irony is that its 15 certificate will stop cinemagoers the same age as Arbor and Swifty from watching it. Meanwhile, adults may be put off by the fact that it is inspired by a children's fairy story.

It would be a grave misfortune if Barnard doesn't find the audience she deserves. Then again, regardless of its initial box-office performance, The Selfish Giant will have a very long shelf life and will be watched for years to come. Barnard's updating of Wilde is certainly one of the strongest films in what is shaping up as a vintage year for British cinema.

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015