The Selfish Giant: Kings of the trash heap

Clio Barnard's tale of two Bradford boys, literally on the scrapheap, has little in common with the Oscar Wilde fairytale that gave it its name.

The Selfish Giant (15)
dir: Clio Barnard

Clio Barnard, who made her debut with The Arbor, an innovative drama-documentary about the playwright Andrea Dunbar, has done her second picture no favours by naming it after Oscar Wilde’s short story. Time spent puzzling over what the parallels might be between the tale of an ogre who outlaws children from his garden and this film about two Bradford boys scavenging for scrap metal is time wasted. The film is its own beast with its own beauty, and a spirit that’s wild rather than Wildean.

A sole point of contact between story and film is the idea of exclusion, of children banished into the wilderness. The heroes of The Selfish Giant are a non-matching set of little-and-large urchins: Swifty (Shaun Thomas), an overgrown packhorse of a lad, and Arbor (Conner Chapman), a pipsqueak with a pickaxe face. Every avenue in which these boys might explore childhood has been closed off to them. At 13, they are debt-payers, working stiffs, parents to their own parents.

The first shot shows Arbor in a rage under his bed, pummelling the wooden slats as though he has awoken to find himself the victim of premature burial. He hasn’t been taking his ADHD medication, though his problems are not exclusively clinical. With no father in sight, he has appointed himself the man of the family. When his mother (Rebecca Manley) won’t accept the money he’s earned selling scrap, Arbor fumes, “I worked my arse off for this!”

The disparity between his belligerent phrasing and his sparrow-weight frame is obliquely amusing. It’s played more broadly for laughs when he barks instructions at a police officer entering the house: “Shoes off!” He can be adult in his tenderness, too. When his mother is crying, he cradles her head and pats it softly in a manner he could only have learned from her.

Childhood is no rosier for Swifty. The electricity has been cut off at home and his father (Steve Evets) is flogging the furniture. Even the taunts traded in the school playground feel shaped by adult concerns. “Your family’s gonna be in debt for ever!” says a bully to his victim. Whatever happened to mocking a classmate’s nose or ears, or impugning his mother’s sexual conduct?

The nearest that Swifty and Arbor get to innocent play is when they lounge sleepily together on a broken trampoline. Energy they should be expending climbing trees or playing football is channelled into moneymaking schemes.

The boys fall in with Kitten (Sean Gilder), the volatile owner of a local scrapyard. He has a fearsome-looking machine with gnashing teeth for extracting aluminium wire. It seems entirely possible that Arbor and Swifty will be fed to this monster if they step out of line.

Over a landscape of gnarled metal stand rows of electricity pylons, humming insidiously. The cinematographer Mike Eley sometimes shoots with a long lens through grass so that a subtle green fuzz is visible at the edges of a frame otherwise dominated by greys and rusted bronzes. The enduring struggle between human cruelty and nature’s consolations is nicely captured in such compositions.

But there is an inevitability to the fates of Arbor and Swifty that feels too easy, dramatically speaking. Barnard’s previous film used transformative techniques to lift the material out of the kitchen sink: actors lip-synced to recordings of the story’s real-life subjects, while a performance of Andrea Dunbar’s writing was staged on the Bradford estate where she once ruled over her children, booze in hand.

The Selfish Giant falls back instead on a familiar stylistic palette (the dramatic DNA of Ken Loach, the stalking camera of the Dardenne brothers) every bit as orthodox as the portrayal of no-income families steeped in misery, crime and cold baked beans.

At least Dunbar coaxes a pair of miraculous performances from her young lead actors, both of whom make their feature debut here. And she remains alert to the telling visual details that lend exotic flavours to a drab image: a Lottery sign glowing sinisterly along a precinct of iron shutters, or the care with which a plump sofa is manoeuvred out of a doorway like a vital organ extracted in a game of “Operation”.

Swifty (Shaun Thomas) and Arbor (Conner Chapman) in The Selfish Giant. Image: BFI.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era