Crusading social realism may have long since ceased to be fashionable in Britain’s theatre and television drama, but in the cinema the flame stubbornly continues to burn. In recent years, these films have often come visually supercharged with a new painterly grandeur – a kind of Loach 2.0.
Directors like Amma Asante, Sally El Hosaini and Tina Gharavi have contributed to this continuing British movie tradition; Andrea Arnold has had sensational successes with her movies Red Road, Fish Tank and a brilliant and much-misunderstood version of Wuthering Heights. Now Clio Barnard has shown her own mastery of the form with an outstanding new film, a contemporary reworking of the story by Oscar Wilde. Having watched it again, the minor qualifications I had when I first saw it at Cannes earlier this year have been blowtorched away by its sheer passion – and by the two leading performances.
Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas play Arbor and Swifty, two lads who live in the tough estates of Bradford, leading an almost bucolic existence of hand-to-mouth survival. Arbor is small, aggressive, unhappy. His mate Swifty is slower and gentler and almost beatific, a natural target for bullies. Arbor gets in a fight defending Swifty in the playground, and the resulting chaos gets both boys excluded, a development they welcome so that they can pursue their true vocation: roaming around town scavenging and nicking metal objects so they can sell them for scrap. To do this, the children must take their swag to a dodgy dealer, inappropriately nicknamed Kitten, and played by Sean Gilder.
Just as Wilde’s giant lived in perennial winter in his walled garden, glowering Kitten rules over a grim scrapyard with high fences: a factory of ill-health and unsafety. He is also at the centre of an illegal and fantastically dangerous drag-racing scene on public roads with the horses and traps used for his work. A natural predator and exploiter, Kitten sees that sweet-natured Swifty has a talent for handling horses and could be a star rider for him: as for poor Arbor, his metier is the dangerous business of stealing cable from railway lines and electricity stations. Arbor and Swifty look like Laurel and Hardy. Kitten calls them Cheech and Chong.
Since this film first appeared, the director has indicated that it should not be read too closely in tandem with the literary original, and that this was effectively a starting-off point. This is true enough. And yet the film’s heartstopping denouement will make less sense without a knowledge of Wilde’s story and his Christian imagery of the stigmata. You have to make the connection between that and the secular, godless world of Barnard’s movie, you have to trace its Christ-shaped hole – and furthermore, to wonder which of the characters is the “giant” – to appreciate the film’s voltage and to understand its tragedy.
It’s weird to praise something like this for its stunts and non-CGI action sequences, but Barnard’s “drag race” scene is superb: a hair-raising Brit-realist Ben-Hur. Two lads piloting horse-drawn traps hurtle down a public road at dawn. Behind them is a crazy flotilla of gamblers in cars with screaming horns, leaning out to get a YouTube video of the race on their phones, aggressively sideswiping each other, and naturally trying to spook the opponent’s horse so he crashes. These are the kings of deprivation, and this is their sport. Another sort of director might have made it the finale, but Barnard places it elsewhere in the story and coolly shows that in this race there are only losers.
The Selfish Giant has Ken Loach’s Kes in its DNA; Chapman looks eerily like the young David Bradley in some scenes, and Sean Gilder is a grisly, ironic, unfunny reincarnation of Brian Glover’s PE teacher: a father figure who can only destroy. I would also compare it to Loach’s The Navigators. The Selfish Giant does not have the formally innovatory quality of Barnard’s previous work The Arbor, the “verbatim cinema” experiment that made her name, but the direct humanity and sympathy here signal her maturity as a film-maker, particularly in the handling of the two young leads. There is enormous pathos in the way Thomas traces Swifty’s ascent from protected to protector; as well as in Conner Chapman’s scrappy, wounded defiance and in the exquisite insolence he shows to the two coppers who come round to give him a warning: he demands that they remove their shoes in the house. It is a richly allusive and moving work. And Barnard’s own stature isn’t in doubt.