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

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”.