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The Selfish Giant

The Second Coming


“The British are coming,” Chariots of Fire scriptwriter Colin Welland said in the early eighties after winning an Oscar.  Chariots of Fire was produced by Goldcrest, yet the films the company followed with in the mid-eighties, The Mission, Revolution, and Absolute Beginners, were box-office own goals. The British might have been coming, but the audience wasn’t. Whatever the merits of these three films, nobody could deny that they failed to get the box-office returns or the immediate critical praise of Chariots of Fire and that other Academy awardee, Gandhi. The films even produced a work of debacle literature à la Final Cut, Steven Bach’s book on the marvellous but financially catastrophic Heaven’s Gate. Goldcrest’s was My Indecision is Final, by Jake Eberts and Terry Illot.

So we should be very careful about saying the British are coming, but with the work of Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsay, Joanna Hogg and Clio Barnard (as well as  Carol Morley with Dreams of a Life and Gillian Wearing with Self Made), there is a richness to British film through female sensibility that ought to be tentatively talked up. Though surely influenced by Ken Loach (Arnold), Nic Roeg (Ramsay), Mike Leigh (Hogg) and Alan Clarke (Barnard), the directors seem also aware of broader, European influences, from the brothers Dardenne to Claire Denis. It is also a wave that has none of the surfer arrogance of Goldcrest, but more modestly wants to inhabit small lives in small ways. It follows Claude Chabrol’s dictum about being wary of big subjects. Even Ramsay’s US set We Need to Talk About Kevin insists on keeping the horrors off screen and focusing on the familial tensions. If the earlier films were historically focused; the more recent ones have been much more domestically inclined.

None more so than Barnard’s The Selfish Giant (Barnard’s follow-up to the experimental account of playwright Andrea Dunbar, The Arbor). This is a film where the flogging of a half-paid for couch gets a dramatic supporting part, and where scrap takes on the aura of precious metal. A chunk of dramatic screen time is given over to a hefty piece of crushed copper as our dubious hero stupidly steals it from the man he sold it to in the first place. It is an idiotic action for several reasons, as young Arbor (Conner Chapman) nicks it from someone with a ferocious temper and tries to sell it with the aid of people who knew exactly where he got it from and who end up keeping the profits for themselves. The man without much anger management is called Kitten (Sean Gilder), but top cat, as in top dog, would be nearer the mark, and the boys, Arbor and his best friend Swifty (Shaun Thomas), orbit around him and his scrapyard like kids with no particular place to go. Especially after a fight at school leaves Arbor and Swifty at an even looser end than usual when Arbor is expelled and Swifty suspended.

Partly what makes The Selfish Giant an interesting film lies in its ability to engage us in the immediacy of Arbor’s exploits whilst at the same time indicating that, for all the talk of Britain’s first world status, it can often representationally be shown as a third world nation. Barnard presents Bradford the post-industrial town not as a brave new world, but as a dilapidated old one. The post-industry here isn’t an issue of high-technology but obsolete goods for scrap, as the film functions a little like a cross between Amir Naderi’s very fine eighties Iranian film The Runner, and scenes from Michael Glawogger’s  Workingman’s Death. In the former film the young boy will do anything to make a buck, and we watch his endlessly resourceful behaviour as this orphan finds ways to survive. In the latter workers in Pakistan with barely any safety gear take apart disused ships for scrap. Naderi’s film often invokes the playful within hardship; Glawogger’s the unequivocally desperate. The Selfish Giant works somewhere in between. The kids might think they are having fun, but we’re more inclined to believe that it is their poverty which has them running around for a few pounds instead of playing paintball.

Though reviewers have questioned the film’s dramatic arc and seen nods towards predictable Loachian tragedy, is this not Barnard’s wish to show that innocent fun isn’t so innocuous when desperation sits behind the boys’ antics? Ryan Gilbey in the New Statseman says, “there is an inevitability to the fates of Arbor and Swifty that feels too easy dramatically speaking.” But maybe there would be less of a need for the dramatically easy if the lives shown weren’t so harsh. Barnard’s purpose is to focus on the excitement of youthful energy but attach it to a socio-political purpose that has us questioning modern, late and post-industrial Britain. These are the circumstances that bring to mind another own-goal statement, David Cameron’s claim that we are all in this together. The Selfish Giant coincides with tax cuts for the well-off, which have been paid for by welfare cuts on the down-at-heel, as the government robs poor Peter to pay wealthy Paul, and where the use of food banks, according to the BBC, have, almost inevitably, tripled in a year. When asked about the political dimension in the film, Barnard replied, “I hope that when people see it, they understand that there’s some political context for it.” (Tank)

The question isn’t so much the predictability of the film’s dramatic techniques; more the ease with such ‘old-fashioned’ devices can play out in the 21st century. As The Selfish Giant explores a Dickensian tale that happens to be based on an Oscar Wilde story, the film can play up Oliver plot twists partly because the poverty stricken lives haven’t gone away. As Barnard says: “Seeing demonised, criminalised working class boys infuriates me. Their value doesn’t seem to be recognized or understood…and asked the question: what is it that makes a child take the risks that Arbor and Swifty take?” (Sight and Sound) Barnard’s achievement rests not especially in escaping narrative clichés, but justifying them by showing up the grind of the characters’ lives, even giving them a dimension of the surreal within the everyday real. There is the moment where Swifty is sitting in the secretary’s office serving his suspension, when in long shot through the school’s windows Arbor comes towards him in horse and cart. This is the clippity clop of the 19th century intruding on the 21st, made all the more strange perhaps by Mike Eley’s camerawork, bang up to date and capturing the old-fashioned. As Barnard says when asked about utilising the post-industrial hinterlands of Bradford, “that’s down to my remarkable cinematographer…and we shot it on an Alexa, which was much more light sensitive than the RED camera we used on The Arbor.” (Sight and Sound) In another scene the boys are out in the fields beyond Bradford’s Buttershaw Estate, making a fire and musing over the money they could make out of electric cables that, if live, would certainly kill them. The old and the relatively new again brought together.

Of course The Selfish Giant isn’t simply a political film, and none of the female filmmakers we’ve mentioned would share Loach’s interest in the message being the medium; it is more what sort of message comes out of the close scrutiny of emotional circumstances. Arbor is a pointedly hyperactive, and doesn’t always take his medication, and the film’s conclusion suggests a bit of human warmth can assuage a young boy who finally realizes the limitations of a can-do spirit recklessly applied.

Taking into account Welland’s remark, if the British are coming again, this is a rather more muted return, much more lower case and lower class, based on the quotidian detail and the smaller subject, and yet nevertheless quietly more ambitious than the earlier works. If they proposed the way we were; many of the films by the Ramsay, Arnold and others in films like Ratcatcher, Red Road, Fish Tank, The Selfish Giant, A Dream of a Life, even the more bourgeois Unrelated and Archipelago, have all proposed, instead, the state we’re in, whether set today (The Selfish Giant, Red Road) or in the very recent past, as in Ratcatcher and The Arbor.  It is apt perhaps that many of them are at least a little indebted to Loach rather than to Goldcrest. We should remember after all that long before Welland’s Oscar-winning speech he was of course the schoolteacher fretting over lost working-class lives in none other than Loach’s 1970 film Kes. It is a movie of course numerously name-checked in the reviews of Barnard’s film (and by Barnard herself), and where Welland captures much better the spirit of the present cinematic times than in his brief report to the Academy.


©Tony McKibbin