By AJ Gilbert
Crusading social realism has for some time been unfashionable in theatre and television, but this old tradition continues to be one of the most enduring features of British cinema. Emerging through works such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and given coherence in the careers of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, this tradition has been taken up by a new generation of filmmakers. Clio Barnard has shown her own mastery of the form with The Selfish Giant, a film that belongs to the body of work stretching from Kes to Fish Tank, through Ratcatcher, in its depiction of social deprivation from the viewpoint of children. Bernard was partly inspired to make the film after reading Oscar Wilde’s tale of the same name to her children. At the same time, the work is inspired by the real-life story of a young ‘scrapper’ lad, Matty, who she met while filming her wonderful abstract documentary The Arbor. It’s an unlikely, yet rewarding collision of influences that creates a rich tension between the film’s harsh realism and its gentle allusion to myth.
The heroes of the movie are the aggressive, unhappy Arbor and his slower and milder mate Swifty. It is these two wonderful performances, captured with great tenderness, which makes the film so special. Like Billy Casper in Kes, Arbor embodies the capacity of the young soul to endure society’s best attempts to crush it. Together the pair rekindle memories of the friends adrift in the Depression-era America in Of Mice and Men. The two boys are excluded from school and are desperate to help their Mums who are variously struggling to keep a roof over their family’s head. They seek out work by hiring a horse and cart from the local scrap-metal merchant misleadingly nicknamed ‘Kitten’. The two round up old bikes, washing machines and even burnt out cars, while being lured towards the more lucrative rewards of stolen power cables. Kitten’s yard embodies the malaise of a dismantled industrial society in which nothing new is made, but all items are up for scavenging. Everything is worth something.
Bernard’s film bears a tenuous but interesting relation to the Wilde story that inspired it – so tenuous that the director claimed she thought of changing her title. In the original, children play in a beautiful garden but are cast out by the Selfish Giant upon his return. The film shares this idea of dispossessed and marginalised children as its central theme. Our heroes, too, have nowhere to play. The film’s tragic denouement is given deeper resonance by the framework of Wilde’s Christian imagery. As with the Christ-child in Wilde’s religious allegory, an act of sacrifice leads to sudden and uncompromising redemption. In this way, we might see Kitten as our Selfish Giant presiding over his scrapheap garden. While the film’s narrative structure may suggest it has drawn very lightly from its fairy tale source, these thematic parallels enable the film to look back to myth and legend while remaining grounded in its social realism.
This bringing together of myth and reality is given a wonderfully visual dimension in Mike Eley’s cinematography. He has an eye for poetic and jarring juxtapositions as when Kitten’s horse and cart arrive at the boys’ school. The horse reappears in the film’s most memorable scene, a terrifying drag-race sequence where two lads ride horse-drawn traps and hurtle down a public road at dawn. They are followed by a crazed flotilla of gamblers in cars ramming each other trying to spook the opponent’s horse. The horses of the race serve a similar role to the kestrel in Kes by giving the characters a perspective beyond that of their brutal, industrial world and a connection to nature. Eley provides many spectacular shots of Yorkshire countryside that make even the huge pylons along the horizon seem poetic. Perhaps it is these haunting pylons that are the Selfish Giants, jealously guarding their valuable treasures of power cables by keeping their copper forever out of the children’s reach.