Review: The Selfish Giant

Clio Barnard’s loose adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s short story sees children condemned to life on the scrapheap

October 24, 2013

Noble salvage: children such as Arbor (Conner Chapman) prefer working in a scrapyard and racing horses to the ‘dull, cold corridors of school’ in Clio Barnard’s loose adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant

The Selfish Giant
Directed by Clio Barnard
Starring Sean Gilder, Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas
Released nationwide on 25 October

We are offered images of fierce loyalty and love: hands gripping hands in friendship, a tearful, cathartic hug, a vigil in the rain

If we consider Clio Barnard’s new film a very loose adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s story The Selfish Giant, then the eponymous monster is Kitten (Sean Gilder). In this modern fable set on a misty boundary-land between rural and urban, between Bradford’s streets and its surrounding fields, he is a gruff bear of a man and runs a scrapyard, dominating it as the giant of Wilde’s story rules his garden. The children who come to visit – sometimes turned away, sometimes welcomed – are Arbor (Conner Chapman) and his friend Swifty (Shaun Thomas), who see salvage and stripping cable as a way to escape both school and their impoverished home lives.

But Barnard’s film is not really an adaptation, even in the loosest sense – and “loose” would be the wrong word, in every way, for this wire-tight story with its angry, attention-deficit energy, its undercurrent of electricity, and the restless buzz of its protagonists, fuelled on “kiddy cocaine” (Ritalin) and Relentless stimulant drinks.

Rather, it would be better to suggest that Wilde’s sweet and short Selfish Giant provides a framework for this wilder, rougher tale, as frameworks are what the film is built around: the cage-like social structures, and the physical spaces – stables, box rooms, corridors, classrooms, working men’s clubs – which contain its characters and either wear them down or drive them towards rebellion.

Most obviously, Barnard invites us to enter the constrained spaces of poverty. Its everyday oppression is never pushed in our faces, but sadly and subtly made clear when we visit Swifty’s house, crowded with kids: we witness the debt collector’s regular visits, the bin bags taped over windows to conserve heat, and the dinnertime when every child gets a spoonful of cold baked beans. Down the street at Arbor’s house, his mother’s floral wallpaper only makes the space seem smaller, as if the vines and creepers are closing in; no wonder we first see him punching the walls, and no wonder he takes the first opportunity to scramble up and out, even if it’s through grafting for Kitten.

Kitten’s scrapyard, in turn, places us within the hierarchies of the black market, within the rough power structures of masculinity and the shadow economy of scavenging, the area’s only surviving industry. It may be unofficial, but Kitten’s business echoes and borrows from the mainstream economy – he “taxes at source”, rewards and promotes his best workers, and punishes Arbor for stealing from his own (stolen) stock. Swifty finds that his talent lies with the horses Kitten races – pulling carts called “sulkies”, on empty motorways at dawn – while Arbor quickly picks up the rules of business, learning the types of metal, their weight and their worth. It’s not an easy trade, but both boys prefer it to the dull, cold corridors of school, where the only glimpse of hills and grass is the Windows desktop on a secretary’s computer.

Within these frameworks – work, home and neglected education, the masculine pride and low-income labour that are already shaping these boys into young men – we and the characters also find joy, excitement and affection. As Swifty and Arbor walk down a deserted shopping arcade, plastic Union flag bunting – left over from a recent Jubilee or Royal Wedding – hangs next to a sign for the National Lottery, while the background is dominated by graffiti of a heart, with the simple slogan “LOVE”. Alongside signifiers of faded Britishness and the promise of financial escape, the scene is backed, literally, by this crude but warm heart: specifically, a painting of a heart, a heart as “art”, echoed by the dialect pronunciation (“You’re brekkin’ me art, love,” Swifty’s mother tells him).

Throughout the film, punctuating the story as it moves relentlessly towards and beyond tragedy, we are offered images of fierce loyalty and love: hands gripping hands in friendship, a tearful, cathartic hug, a vigil in the rain, and a one-man, makeshift, horse-drawn funeral procession. Just as an arm around the shoulders in this environment can easily lead to a beating, so a threat can become a plea (“Stop being a dick…please, bro”) and a play-fight can be an expression of friendship, even intimacy. When Arbor’s mother says to Mrs Swift, towards the end, “I appreciate it, love”, you realise how often that word is spoken, how often love is given voice, in the everyday conversation of Northern communities.

One character’s eventual, violent death, hinted at through Wilde’s original, towers over Barnard’s film from its earliest shots, and hums and crackles under its soundtrack. The pylons, dark structures and silhouettes on the horizon of the boys’ lives, demonstrate the risk of raw energy unleashed and uncontrolled. Arbor, his name (drawn from Barnard’s previous film, but dictionary-defined as a “landscape structure”) drifting somewhere between urban ASBO and pastoral Arden, is obsessed with their thrumming power, and constantly returns from his streets into their fields, dreaming of making money by scavenging their thick cables.

Wilde’s tale concludes with a Christian gift of redemption through sacrifice; Barnard gives us nothing so obvious, but hints at some characters gaining a sense of responsibility and gruff honour, and others finding new solace, peace and purpose. Rather than Kitten, who no longer dominates the last scenes, it is the pylons that look down at this story of loss and its aftermath – selfish giants, like the impassive horse who also watches the tragedy, like the moon that keeps vigil all night over a small corpse and its companion.

The real selfish giant of Barnard’s retelling is, then, not Kitten, who lives up to his softer name, and not the horse – named Diesel, again a rural-industrial hybrid – whose warm, natural sounds replace the doomy hum of pylons in the final shot. The selfish giant is not the watching moon, but the world: the larger economy that excludes these characters from official employment and forces them to run a black market, scavenging scraps, scraping a living on the edges and making money out of trash.

The selfish giant is the system of government that prompts Kitten to run a semi-legal shadow industry, but polices him for his enterprise, keeping him on the edges of official business without safety checks or healthcare. The selfish giant is the society that structures the lives of Arbor, Swifty and their adult equivalents, boxes them into poverty and offers them only limited and risky avenues for escape: the society that keeps them in these desperate, reckless spaces where they run, dodge, swerve, struggle and sometimes die. This, ultimately, is the power of Barnard’s modern fable: that it is not a fairy tale, but – in its broader lessons if not its specifics – a true story.

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