Directed by: Clio Barnard.
Written by: Clio Barnard.
Starring: Conner Chapman (Arbor), Shaun Thomas (Swifty), Ralph Ineson (Johnny Jones), Ian Burfield (Mick Brazil), Everal Walsh (Railway Man), Sean Gilder (Kitten), Lorraine Ashbourne (Mary), Elliott Tittensor (Martin Fenton), Rebecca Manley (Michelle 'Shelly' Fenton).
Clio Barnard’s debut film was The Arbor (2010) – a fascinating documentary about the sad life of British playwright Andrea Dunbar. That film mixed parts of Dunbar’s plays along with actors, lip-synching to interviews of real life people discussing Dunbar, her life and her work. It was an altogether daring film – and I’m amazed Barnard pulled it off. Her new film, The Selfish Giant, is just as dark, dank and depressing as The Arbor was – but also slightly more conventional – yet that doesn’t diminish its undeniable power.
The film stars Conner Chapman – an extremely gifted non-actor – as Arbor. Arbor comes from a dysfunctional family – to put it mildly – and although his mother loves him, she cannot control him. He rarely goes to school, and gets in trouble when he does. He is on medication for ADD – but his brother often steals it. Arbor is impulsive and reckless – doing things without considering the consequences of his actions until it is far too late. His only real friend is Swifty (Shaun Thomas) – who got his nickname ironically – one presumes anyway – as Swifty is not very swift. He is a sweet kid though – he comes from a large family that like Arbor’s is dirt poor. Swifty is a sweet kid though – gifted at dealing with animals. He gets sucked into Arbor’s schemes because there isn’t much else to do – and no one else seems to want to be his friend.
Arbor has many schemes – all of which involve him making money. His main one involves stripping copper wire from construction sites, and selling it to a local junkman – Kitten (Sean Gilder). Kitten is large and imposing – and like Arbor has a lot of moneymaking schemes. He doesn’t care where Arbor gets the wire, as long as he gets it. He also runs illegal horse races – and when the kid he has riding his horse smarts off one too many times, he enlists Swifty to ride for him. This makes Arbor jealous, and sets into motion the tragic final act.
The film is grim almost from beginning to end. There is very little hope for Arbor and Swifty when the film begins, and even less when things come crashing down at the end. Barnard matches the bleakness of the story with her visuals – I’m not sure we’ve ever seen England this dank and depressing looking before, and that really is saying something. Yet, Barnard draws us in from the opening frames of the movie mainly because she has so perfectly cast the two lead roles. Apart, Chapman and Thomas are great, together they are even better – creating an onscreen friendship that feels natural and unforced. They often don’t say much to each other, because they don’t have to. As the film moves along, we know all is not going to end well – it would be impossible for this story to have a happy ending – and yet when the end does come, it still hurts. By then, I had come to love these two – flaws and all.
The Selfish Giant confirms the potential that Barnard showed in The Arbor. It is not as easy film to love, but it is an honest one – amazingly well made and acted from beginning to end. Barnard, I can know comfortably say, is one of the best directors working in the UK right now.