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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

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 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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