With nods to Oscar Wilde’s story of the same name, two schoolboys, confident Arbor (Chapman) and softie Swifty (Thomas) are growing up in an underprivileged Yorkshire town, struggling to fit in at school and desperate to make ends meet and help their families. After witnessing a cable theft on a nearby rail track and making off with the loot, the boys decide scrap metal could earn them more than a few bob. The pair set about learning the trade from shady scrap dealer Kitten (an intimidating Sean Gilder) who likes a flutter on the horses on the side. Arbor decides there are bigger takings to be had that result in a strain on the boys’ friendship and ultimately, tragedy.
Coming-of-age dramas along the lines of Andrea Anrold’s Fish Tank (2009), similar in tone to this film, have a refreshing independence to their storylines where the young protagonist/s mature before their years in order to survive but are still stuck in a wide-eyed innocence of hope prevailing to change their lot. The Selfish Giant follows the same traits: social deprivation, inadequate parenting, cursing, and explosive anger. Barnard treats these tropes as a given, hence allowing us to focus on the boys’ relationship trajectory; there is no need for another frank lesson on the UK’s ‘Under Class’ today.
Arbor and Swifty compliment each other’s better points so a natural bond is effortlessly realised. The friction amounts not from their social status as such, but from Arbor testing that balance to tipping point. Jealousy is the catalyst, and it’s the harrowing redemption at the end after a massive shock that buries any wild aspirations. In the meantime, a lot of hidden rage is spent in some of the most vividly captured, close-up moments – you can almost taste the hurt. Chapman and Thomas are utterly astounding as untrained actors, giving mature performances and grasping their characters’ motivations completely.
Barnard’s setting offers a tranquil beauty to some of the more reflective occasions, capturing the Yorkshire countryside at its most serene, even in the worst of weather. Mike Eley’s (Parade’s End and Touching The Void) cinematography is muted and grey in tone but each frame is handsomely recreated. His camerawork at times mimics Arbor’s anger-fuelled and boisterous behaviour and Swifty’s more laid back and thoughtful nature to evoke a greater sense of being of these chalk-and-cheese best pals.
In contrast to the social despair there is a budding optimism that could be a factor of the boys’ youth, a chance to catch a break that keeps the plot alive and never impeded. Barnard’s subject matter rewards in many respects and her storytelling flair stays with you long after the end credits. British cinema has conversely never felt so invigorating.