Clio Barnard’s new film, a loose adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s short story of the same name, tells the story of Arbor (Conner Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas), two kids from Bradford who, when Arbor finds himself excluded from school as a result of his poor behaviour for which he takes pills, decide to make money for themselves gathering up scrap for recycling, and in particular finding, even stealing, copper, a very valuable resource.
As has been mentioned, The Selfish Giant is a film strongly in the tradition of Ken Loach’s Kes (UK, 1969): young boys wandering the countryside that surrounds a northern town/city, from impoverished/broken homes. There are also some visual nods to Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank (UK/Netherlands, 2009), primarily as a result of the presence of horses in both films, with horses taking the place of the kestrel that Billy looks after in Loach’s film. Here, Swifty in particular is good with horses and hopes to take part in unofficial/illegal horse-and-cart races along the local A roads at some point.
(One might also mention Pawel Pawlikowski’s Twockers (UK, 1998) as a precursor to The Selfish Giant, not least because Pawlikowski won Best Film at this year’s London Film Festival with his film, Ida (Poland/Denmark, 2013).)
Overall, then, there is a sense that nature is good for children – a thesis that seems to be the moral of Wilde’s story as well. For, in Wilde’s story a giant is deemed selfish for not letting children play in his otherwise walled garden.
In Wilde’s story, the giant finds redemption when he eventually opens up his garden to the children – although this is motivated by the fact that his garden is permanently in winter.
But the Spring never came, nor the Summer. The Autumn gave golden fruit to every garden, but to the Giant’s garden she gave none. ‘He is too selfish,’ she said. So it was always Winter there, and the North Wind, and the Hail, and the Frost, and the Snow danced about through the trees.
The giant of Barnard’s film is, presumably, Kitten (Sean Gilder), the owner of the local scrapyard, who employs Arbor and Swifty, but who also is constantly ripping them off.
In Wilde’s story, the giant eventually finds redemption, in particular for having spoken to and embraced a little boy who still is enshrouded in winter, even though spring has arrived elsewhere after the opening up of his garden.
This does transpose on to the film when Kitten, ultimately/*spoiler* (of sorts) takes the rap for a misdemeanour involving Arbor and Swifty. But Kitten’s ‘redemption’ is prison; and while Arbor may learn from this experience, Swifty will not.
In other words, while we can try to fit Wilde and Barnard neatly together, ultimately we cannot. And the main reason for this is that Barnard, in the tradition of British social realism, does not attribute the metaphorical winter (i.e. poverty) of her characters to the selfishness of Kitten, even though Kitten is a ‘selfish’ character (because struggling financially, it would seem; his is not the life of Beemers and Cristal).
Rather, Barnard wishes to address systemic failures that lead to poverty, the need for children to work in order to help their family makes ends meet, a failure for schools to look after children like Arbor, and how economic desperation will drive people to take desperate, ill-advised measures.
Perhaps one way in which Barnard’s film does not quite match Loach’s is the way in which Loach analyses the education system in some depth. Repeatedly we see Billy Casper (David Bradley) in classes, with teachers overlooking him and so on. In The Selfish Giant, moving as it is, it is hard to get a sense of where Arbor and Swifty’s exclusion from society comes – except the oblique reference to the fact that Arbor has psychological problems and is from a broken family. In other words, Barnard does seem to suggest that the family is at fault for Arbor’s behaviour, while Kes suggests that the education system as a whole lets down good kids, including Billy Casper.
This slight shift in emphasis perhaps reflects different times; but it also seems to suggest that responsibility lies perhaps more with individuals than with institutions in terms of people leading ‘better’ (i.e. more economically secure) lives. Perhaps this is also a result of using Wilde as the guiding text; Wilde squarely places the long-standing winter on the giant’s shoulders. The claim might be: who in the contemporary world of economic hardship cannot afford not to be selfish? But a) this potentially reaffirms the ideology of selfishness; and b) it does not get to grips with the causes of selfishness – which are only alluded to, almost namedropped here, rather than explored in detail.
Stepping away from Wilde, The Selfish Giant is also a treatise on electricity. We notice early on that the electricity in Swifty’s house has been cut off and that the family is eating cold beans on bread.
This is a family that is not hooked up to the grid, that is not connected to society. And as Arbor and Swifty seek copper – that most conductive element of electricity – we get a sense that they are also thereby seeking inclusion in society. And, ultimately, it is electricity that will be their downfall, that will cast out and permanently exclude Swifty and Arbor, be it not for Kitten’s decision to ‘save’ Arbor from his own fate.
There is a muted hope, then, in Barnard’s new film. But one that is tempered as a result of us never really knowing where the suffering of these characters comes from (is it a given that people are excluded for no reason?), meaning that we cannot know how to help this suffering (apart from via blythe sayings like ‘we need to redistribute wealth’ – against which I have no objections, but for which concrete plans need to be made). If Loach pointed to shortcomings in education in particular in Kes, I am not sure what we can take from The Selfish Giant – except a bleak vision of a bleak part of the UK.
We should be reminded that the UK is not a garden shrouded permanently in spring and sunshine and that there are many excluded people here about whom we should collectively be doing something. But a film that points this out only achieves half of what film might achieve; the other, harder half of proactively addressing the issue of ongoing poverty and desperation in our society, seems to remain invisible here – as if Barnard herself had no hope. Muted hope, then, verging on hopelessness. A moving, but for me a ‘philosophically’ difficult film.