The story goes that a giant who was away for seven years returns home to his castle to find that the garden outside his home had become a playscape for the neighborhood children. Being the selfish beast that he was, he scared the children away and put up a wall and a sign, prohibiting them from returning. The garden itself was saddened by the loss of these children, and so Spring refused to return and the giant was left in total wintery isolation until the children snuck back into the garden the play, and Spring returned at last. The giant realized his selfish ways and knocked down the wall he had built and welcomed the children back, including a young boy trapped in a tree who just so happened to be Jesus, and because of that kind act, this selfish giant is redeemed his sins and welcomed into Paradise.
At least, that’s the way that Oscar Wilde wrote it.
Clio Barnard’s story is a little different.
There are some films that are so well conceived they tap into a part of ourselves we aren’t used to addressing. They ask really difficult questions and demand answers from us that we aren’t too keen on actually giving. ‘The Selfish Giant’ feels like one of those films, and while it isn’t as successful in parts as it is in whole, the film delivers a crushing blow that pulls everything together and lingers in the viewer long after the film has ended.
Barnard’s film tells the story if two young boys, Arbor and Swifty. Arbor has some serious temperamental problems (for which he is supposed to take medication) and Swifty is soft. Together they make an odd yet complimentary pair. Swifty is loyal and Arbor is ambitious and together they find themselves expelled from school and on the road to making some good money for a local scrapper who entrusts his illegal activities to minors. Sadly, things begin to shift for the two boys when Kitten, the scrapper, begins to favor Swifty and his horse-whispering ways. Arbor’s ambition and reckless behavior catches up for him and soon things take a tragic twist that leaves the pair divided (in more ways than one) and their lives forever changed.
Finding the ‘giant’ in this particular story is harder than you may think, because the possibilities are endless. According to Barnard, her idea of the giant was the society itself (mainly the school system) that cast out these two young boys and left them to squander their lives, but there are many giants to be found in this story, including Kitten and, most interestingly, Arbor himself.
For me, ‘The Selfish Giant’ kind of lives in Barnard’s direction. There are some moments that could feel stilted or redundant and yet the way she crafts her scenes really engages and keeps the audience glued to each moment, and the way she handles the big moment in the end (so sudden, so muted) really shows the strength in her talent. I can’t wait to see where she goes from here. She also managed to draw out some sensational performances from her two young leads, as well as the supporting cast around her. Conner Chapman anchors the film as the unstable Arbor, deliver such an infectious and dynamic performance, but for me it was Shaun Thomas who really stole the film for me. His facial expressions alone are so imbedded, so honest.
That final handhold had me bawling like a baby.
I give this a B+. It could have used some sharper colors for some of the supporting cast, and the bleakness was overwhelming in parts, but that ending is a saving grace all the way around, and the cast is exceptional. Obviously, Oscar avoided this, but this picked up a slew of BIFA nominations, and even won a special award there.