Review: The Selfish Giant (2013)

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Director: Clio Barnard
Screenwriter: Clio Barnard
Cast: Conner Chapman, Shaun Thomas, Elliott Tittensor, Sean Gilder, Lorraine Ashbourne, Steve Evets, Siobhan Finneran & Rebecca Manley
Runtime: 91 min // Certificate: 15

Gypo; chav; pikey… I hear these words every single day, whether it be out in the street, in casual conversation with friends or, perhaps most perniciously, in the media. I myself am guilty of using them; after all, they’re just words… except they’re not, are they? They’re terms of abuse, used to differentiate one class of people from the other and to differentiate the deserving from the undeserving. In Britain it’s no longer just the haves vs. the have-nots, it’s also one type of have-not versus another type of have-not. These words are thrown around to make one group of people feel mightier than the other; it’s the basest instincts of society in all their nasty glory. It’s miserable jealously and hatred, encouraged by a higher class who think it advantageous to help generate division amongst the people beneath them.

Apologies for the pseudo-Marxist rant there but what struck me most about The Selfish Giant is how apolitical it is. This doesn’t mean that it’s neutral – far from it, Barnard displays obvious sympathies with one group of people against another – but the film achieves so much not via ranting or politicking, but via a simple, heartfelt story. Set in the slums of Bradford, The Selfish Giant combines coming-of-age sensibilities (two teenage boys embarking on a journey of self-discovery) with a fierce look at the consequences of certain areas of Britain being allowed to fall into utter ruination. Unlike most films of its type, The Selfish Giant has no pretentions and does not attempt to be out-there or quirky. It hones in on a specific region, exposes the unspoken destitution and the all but forgotten lack of social cohesion and then leaves again. For all of the charm of the two main characters – both of whom are likeable (despite their issues) and funny – the result is a film that offers little respite for its audience and, as such, is distinctly harrowing.

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Perhaps the most impressive element of Barnard’s film was just how recognisable / relatable each character was. None of them are caricatures of what middle-class media types think the underclass is like, rather they are accurate depictions of the real people you encounter all the time when you live, as I have and do, in places like Birkenhead and Sheffield. Sure, there’s an element of criminality to what these people do, but for the most part they’re all decent, likeable individuals who just want a bit of a break in life. They do what they need to do in order to survive, simple as, and Barnard recognises that about them. The caricature of the slovenly, scrounging scum that the media likes to portray couldn’t be further from the truth. These people are grafters; they want to make a bit of cash to provide for their families, and they’ll do whatever they can to help them achieve that goal, even if that involves breaking the law.

What the film captures so well is an underclass mentality; the idea that no-one out there will help you, so you’ve just got to help yourself. You see it in each of the characters; the two boys, who both see no point in getting an education when they could be out making money, the owner of the scrapyard who has little time for regulations, shirkers or paying tax, the Father who steals not from his neighbours but from the furniture company instead. Barnard’s characters are real, their situations are real and their response to their situation is real. For what little glorification there is, the film ultimately recognises that actually, no, these people’s lives aren’t rosy, they’re really fucking grim, and then proceeds to show us why.

In order to understand just how beautifully harsh The Selfish Giant is, you have to appreciate its realism. It’s simple for people to dismiss films like this as “grief porn” or “poverty porn” – and not without good reason, for certain filmmakers have a terrible record in this area – but Barnard avoids all of these traps by simply focussing on what makes a great story. Her film is littered with numerous threads about the everyday lives of these people, only some of which are ultimately resolved (rightly so), put it all points to one larger thread; that no matter what these people do, they’re left to rot and universally despised. In just 90 minutes, Barnard turns her camera on the audience and asks “what have these people really done to you? Are you still jealous of them?” Her passionate but restrained direction, in combination with some gorgeous cinematography that can make even the slums of Bradford mesmerising, results in a film that more than rivals the great Ken Loach and Mike Leigh efforts of old.

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The film’s main strength rests on the shoulders of its stars. Chapman and Thomas are brilliant as Arbor and Swifty, the two boys who become involved in cable theft and scrapping. The relationship they have with each other is written with a wonderful combination of poetry and realism that shouldn’t work anywhere near as well as it does, while their individual personalities betray a number of contradictions in their personas. Arbor in particular goes through a series of bitter emotions, and Chapman captures every single one of them perfectly. He might be a bit of a prick (what teenager isn’t?), he might indulge in some crime and he might have little respect for authority (again, what teenager does?) but he’s one of the most likable, believable and tragic characters I’ve seen in a British film in years.

The supporting stars, similarly, are brilliant. Gilder and Tittensor (both from Shameless) have never been better, while Siobhan Finneran (best known for her role in ITV’s “comedy” Benidorm) is a total revelation. They’re not maudlin characters by any means, and the stars realise this; they’re downbeat, sure, and they know that the odds are stacked against them, yet they all bring some classic working-class wit, humour and charm to the film and, as a collective, they work exquisitely. They all realise, as Barnard does, that sentimentality has no place in the film, and though there is a constant (and ultimately devastating) air of tragedy to the piece, it’s never portrayed in the typical “working-class solidarity” way.

For me, The Selfish Giant is perhaps the best film of 2013. It’s raw, gritty and full of heartache, yet it’s also utterly charming and full of warmth. Barnard doesn’t judge her characters, nor does she attempt to excuse their behaviour, she simply tells the audience how it is. It’s rare to see a film tackles such issues so confidently, which is pretty sad when you think about it. If The Selfish Giant does one thing it reminds us just how marginalised and divided certain parts of our society have become, and that is – regardless of your politics – a crying shame.