Published Jan 23, 2014Paddy Considine's Tyrannosaur, Shane Meadows' This is England and Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank have, of late, carried on the tradition of the British kitchen sink genre, but as a vivid portrayal of lower class industrial squalor, Clio Barnard's picture resonates even more strongly. It's tragic and haunting, yet beautiful and tender in equal measure.
Two powerful youth performances anchor this picture: Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas are Arbor and Swifty, a pair of 12 year old miscreants eking out an existence in the industrial north Midlands town of Bradford. Archetypically, Arbor and Swifty resemble a Steinbeck-esque George and Lenny duo, with Arbor as the smaller and scrappier leader and Swifty as the gentle giant, sensitive and humane.
While they aren't identified as Gypsies or Travelers, the lifestyle of the characters in this film are not dissimilar. Having been kicked out of school, they spend their days grifting cooper around town to sell at the local metal recycling yard, in order to help support their chaotic, overpopulated households. Though the characters speak English, the film is subtitled to help North Americans decode the elaborate local dialect.
Barnard admirably shoehorns the bones of a literary parable into Arbor and Swifty's depressing lives. A number of influences come to mind — the Steinbeck comparison as mentioned, the Dickensian characterization of Mick and the metal trader as a Fagan-like mentor for the kids, while the title itself refers directly to the beloved Oscar Wilde fable. These literary antecedents contribute to a richly layered experience beyond a mere social-realist narrative. At times, Barnard points her camera at her characters in the fashion of the Dardennes Bros, and at times she frames classical compositions, evocative and striking. The final moments, which cleverly mirror the opening scene and bookend the film, are unforgettable, leaving the viewer with the undeniable feeling that Clio Barnard might be a new master of cinema.
The Selfish Giant arrives at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox on January 24 following its yearlong festival run beginning in Cannes. Hopefully, a wider theatrical and DVD release is not far off; everyone should experience this film.