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London Film Festival 2013: The Selfish Giant - Review

The Selfish Giant

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4.5 out of 5

INSPIRED as much by Oscar Wilde’s story of the same name as it is from the director’s real life experience of scrapping, The Selfish Giant is a tour-de-force piece of filmmaking from Clio Barnard that is both emotionally absorbing and gut-wrenchingly powerful.

Barnard said the seeds were first sewn for the movie while she was researching her multi-award winning 2010 film The Arbor, while doing workshops in a local school. There she met a volatile but charismatic 14-year-old named Matty, who stayed for a while, left but re-appeared on the film set.

As Barnard got to know the boy and his family and investigated where he went for long periods, she discovered he was scrapping… scavenging for metal to sell to scrap dealers. He’d been doing it since the age of 11 with a best friend.

At the same time, Barnard had been looking to adapt Wilde’s fairytale The Selfish Giant and saw an opportunity to make a scrapyard owner the giant of the story – someone who could exclude the children at the heart of the story like the giant in Wilde’s tale.

Her question became about whether the owner was giving the kids opportunities to make some money or whether he was exploiting them for his own gain. Hence, the characters of Arbor, Swifty and Kitten were born.

The ensuing film, which also draws on the racing of horses on two-wheel carts (usually by travellers), is a must-see modern day fable that combines those dark fairytale elements with social commentary that succeeds in painting a grim but gripping picture of a particular corner of British life.

Often beautifully shot (as if to offset some of the more choice language), Barnard’s film often has a hypnotic quality. Yet while an air of impending tragedy certainly hangs over proceedings (like the mist that sometimes shrouds the architecture), there’s humour to be found too, as well as a great deal of warmth in the friendship at the heart of the film.

And praise must also be given to the performers, who bring naturalism and authenticity to every role. Sean Gilder is brilliant as the self-serving Kitten (aka the Selfish Giant), while both Rebecca Manley and Downton Abbey‘s Siobhan Finneran excel as the boys’ mothers (often powerless to prevent their sons from getting into scrapes, yet clearly devoted to their charges without the means to provide proper care).

The film belongs to the boys, however, and both Conner Chapman as the ADD afflicted Arbor and Shaun Thomas as the gentler, more sympathetic Swifty, are nothing short of astonishing. It’s a measure of the layers that they bring to their performances that you care deeply for these two, even though you may well cross the street to avoid such characters if you happened upon them in real-life.

But Chapman and Thomas get under the skin of their characters and inhabit them so perfectly that you begin to understand and empathise with their circumstances and the lack of support they are being given. It makes their friendship – and the subsequent strains placed upon it by Kitten – all the more beautifully realised and poignant.

Barnard’s film, like Wilde’s fairytale, emerges with a classic quality that looks set to stand the test of time, while underlining her status as one of Britain’s most formidable filmmakers. This resonates long after you’ve seen it and is undoubtedly one of the British films of the year.

Certificate: 15
Running time: 91mins
London Film Festival Dates: Monday, October 14, 2013 (Odeon West End 2, 9pm), Wednesday, October 16 (Mayfair, 8.45pm)
UK Release Date: Friday, October 25, 22013