The Selfish Giant


The Selfish Giant opens under a clear night sky. Tethered horses bow their heads, content and calm beneath a frozen explosion of stars. The camera lingers, motionless. It is a mesmerising shot of expansive stillness, transforming a slab of inner city wasteland into a vision of pastoral peace. Ominously, the first cut of the film ruptures this peace with a blast of human rage.

These opening minutes are a sign of what is to come – brutal social realism laced with a visual poetry that lifts it out of the kitchen sink. The Selfish Giant’s success lies in its expert weaving of these two stylistic strands, leaving us with an icy depiction of underclass struggle, but one that gropes, hopes and hints toward an enduring human warmth amongst the debris of post-industrial West Yorkshire.

As in the famous story that inspired the film, the source of that warmth is innocence. But while the children of Oscar Wilde’s parable bring light and redemption to a frozen adult world, the youthful bond at the heart of Clio Barnard’s work begins to buckle under the weight of its oppressive surroundings. Arbor and Swifty, at fourteen years old, are no angels – their dialogue is starkly realistic and full of vitriolic expletive – but their commitment to each other is in tender contrast to its setting: a society dominated by cold capitalist calculation. The boys’ friendship, developed on the streets of Bradford’s Butterworth estate, is a flickering flame that seems destined to be extinguished by the grown-up world of poverty, greed, and cynicism.

And so it goes. Arbor, excluded from school, is drawn deeper into that world – a world epitomised by local scrap dealer Kitten, a modern day ogre of Dickensian heartlessness. A rift develops between the boys as Arbor becomes obsessed with gathering scrap and stealing cable for Kitten. Swifty is not so keen. Less interested in the world of discarded metal, he prefers to spend time with horses – his generous natural love for these beasts of burden standing out all the more beautifully against the backdrop of rust and self-interest.

Those horses are a significant presence in The Selfish Giant. From the opening scene onwards they bear witness to much of the film’s action – stoical and mute. They seem to represent a pure form of guiltless naivety – born into a life of servitude they will never understand – and Swifty’s attachment to them reflects his own yet-to-be-corrupted soul. A key turning point in the film occurs when Arbor sacrifices a foal in his increasingly desperate pursuit of profit – the poor beast’s carcass, left to rot in the rain, becoming a darkly prophetic symbol of martyred innocence.

But although the film is spiced with such symbolism, it remains predominantly a work of social realism, and as such The Selfish Giant is implicitly political. But what kind of politics are we dealing with here? The answer lies in how we respond to the following question: are the film’s characters excluded from society or just at the bottom of it? Too often the idea of ‘exclusion’ acts as a comfort blanket for the socially concerned – “We need an inclusive society,” they say, “we can’t let these people slip though the net.” – implying of course that crushing poverty is just a bug in the system, yet to be ironed out; a cuddly way of maintaining concern while defending the status quo.

A more radical political interpretation would reject this ‘excluded’ narrative. The world of The Selfish Giant is not a social glitch or ghastly aberration. It is an inevitable by-product of the world we all inhabit – the scrap heap of a consumer society that by definition needs winners and losers. There is no democratic capitalist utopia in which people like Arbor and Swifty need to be ‘included’. They are very much included, just not in the way well-meaning liberals might like.

And perhaps this is the function of the long, serene shots of lifeless industrial zones that punctuate the film’s action: there is nothing left to say. This is our world now. Pastoral innocence has long since bitten the dust – we must learn to love the rows of pylons and their foreboding hum. Look into the sad eye of a half-starved horse and this is what you’ll see: we are all selfish giants now.

Gareth Thornton

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