The Selfish Giant

Review by Adam Woodward @AWLies

Directed by

Clio Barnard


Conner Chapman Sean Gilder Shaun Thomas


The Arbor finds a successor...


...a challenger...

In Retrospect.

...and an equal.

This yearning Northern fable examines childhood, poverty and the down-and-dirty face of modern capitalism.

“Every afternoon, as they were coming from school, the children used to go and play in the Giant’s garden. It was a large lovely garden, with soft green grass. Here and there over the grass stood beautiful flowers like stars, and there were twelve peach-trees that in the spring-time broke out into delicate blossoms of pink and pearl, and in the autumn bore rich fruit. The birds sat on the trees and sang so sweetly that the children used to stop their games in order to listen to them.”

Though they share the same title, director Clio Barnard’s bewitching follow-up to The Arbor bears little cosmetic similarity to the fluorescent idyll of Oscar Wilde’s 19th century children’s fable. Here, the children are adolescent tearaways Arbor (Conner Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas). The giant is menacing local scrapyard boss Kitten (Sean Gilder), whose apparent fondness for the boys is subsumed by his more mercenary tendencies. And the garden is his hulking, rusting purgatory-of-a-business- empire, piled high with purloined washing machines, metal plates and electrical cabling.

The closest we get to the pastoral visions of Wilde’s story are a few short excursions to West Yorkshire’s roaming fields, though they’re merely the setting for further grimly modern prospects, namely the stripping of security-marked copper cables lifted from careless construction workers by the film’s delinquent heroes. Barnard brought a surreal magic to the squalor of The Arbor, blending documentary interview with uncanny lip-sync performance, and while she reins in the formal friskiness here, she retains her feel for perverse splendour.

The burnt out carcass of a Ford Escort pulled through rush-hour traffic on a cart; a teenage boy crossing an overpass on horseback; the gleam of a garden shed’s worth of half-inched copper shimmering in the sun. All take on a mythic significance as they emerge through the heavy fog of the film’s general outlook.

In Wilde’s story, the selfish giant of the title banishes the neighbourhood children from his garden, only to have the flowers, trees and birds take exodus in solidarity. Lesson learned, he welcomes the youngsters back, precipitating the replenishment of his home. Kitten discovers a similar sort of self-serving tolerance here, at first barring Arbor and Swifty from the yard before rescinding his dismissal and taking them on as unquestioning lackeys. This selfishness infects young Arbor (played to pent-up perfection by non-professional newcomer Chapman) and turns him against the quieter, more malleable Swifty, perhaps the sole figure in The Selfish Giant who betrays no hint of ego or malice.

Wilde’s fable carries an overtly Christian message and ends with the appearance of the Child Christ whose sacrifice paves the way for the giant’s redemption. In Barnard’s film, it’s Swifty who does penance for the selfishness of others, his unjust suffering radiating a calm through the town, the fields, and well into the closing credits.

Published 25 Oct 2013

Tags: Clio Barnard


The Arbor finds a successor...


...a challenger...

In Retrospect.

...and an equal.

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