Skip to main content

The Selfish Giant reaction: Cannes 2013

In an uncommonly strong first five days, one of the two or three standouts of the festival thus far is Clio Barnard’s sophomore feature, The Selfish Giant .

In 2010, the artist filmmaker wowed critics with The Arbor , an experimental documentary about Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar that mixed hard-hitting recreations with lip-synced performances.

Again set in Bradford, The Selfish Giant sees Barnard turn her hand assuredly to more traditional filmmaking, though there is nothing run-of-the-mill about her blend of ragged immediacy with images poised and poetic, the authentic with the mythic.

At its wildly beating heart is 13-year-old Bradford tyke Arbor (astonishing newcomer Conner Chapman), a hyper, uncontrollable lad who often neglects to take his meds but is never without a profane retort and a flashing grin.

Beset by rages, Arbor is delighted to be expelled from school and promptly sets about earning a living by collecting – and often stealing – scrap metal.

Together with gentle best friend Swifty (Shaun Thomas), he traverses forlorn, squalid landscapes on a horse and cart, delivering his ill-gotten gains to titular scrap dealer Kitten (Sean Gilder).

Their missions become ever more hazardous and a wedge is driven between them by Kitten, who befriends Swifty and berates Arbor.

Standing on the shoulders of the Brit kitchen sinkers of the ‘50s and ‘60s, The Selfish Giant also recalls the social realism of Ken Loach’s films, with Kes the most obvious reference point.

Cinemagoers more au fait with movies of the last 20 years might think of The Full Monty , Brassed Off and Billy Elliott – and will be wholly unprepared for the kick this delivers.

It is an edgy, energetic picture that hollers with anger and deprivation and throbbing pain, but also with friendship and loyalty, hope and redemption.

Meanwhile, mist-wreathed fields dotted by silent horses introduce a twilight beauty that punctuates serrated scenes of domestic meltdown, with screams ricocheting about shabby interiors.

In these serene moments, Barnard teases out a magical realism befitting a fable – aptly so given that her source material, loosely at least, is Oscar Wilde’s same-titled short story.

A small triumph, The Selfish Giant announces the filmmaker as one of Britain’s finest, her work to be anticipated with the feverishness bestowed on the likes of Lynne Ramsey, Ben Wheatley, Jonathan Glazer, Andrea Arnold, Shane Meadows and Peter Strickland.

Jamie Graham

Jamie Graham is the Editor-at-Large of Total Film magazine. You'll likely find them around these parts reviewing the biggest films on the planet and speaking to some of the biggest stars in the business – that's just what Jamie does. Jamie has also written for outlets like SFX and the Sunday Times Culture, and appeared on podcasts exploring the wondrous worlds of occult and horror.