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Clio Barnard’s first brush with filmmaking was with The Arbor (2010), a bold and innovative docu-drama focusing on the playwright Andrea Dunbar in her formative years growing up on a dilapidated Bradford council estate. Much of its innovation stemmed from a device whereby actors playing parts based on real figures in Dunbar’s life would lip-synch to their recorded testimony. There is a sense with this that the actors are vessels for their words, and de-familiarises the audience with its tension between states of being. It also provides a unique spin on the verbatim play, and the jarring dissonance between voice and actor seem to deliberately make the audience more attuned to the words themselves rather than who said them. This may have been influenced by Brecht’s plays and the supposed ‘distancing effect’, whereby techniques were used to distance the audience from any emotional engagement.
There are no such complex, Brechtian inflected effects on display within The Selfish Giant however. Adapted from an Oscar Wilde children’s story of the same name it follows a comparatively conventional blueprint of the sort of grim, granular social realism synonymous with much British drama. The cinematography for instance is resonant of a Lynne Ramsey’s Ratcatcher (1999) with its saturated colour palette and soft focus scenes of industrial wastelands, and there are also elements such as a connection with animals that somewhat inevitably draws comparisons with the Ken Loach classic Kes (1969).
As-well as its milieu, the film’s central protagonists ‘Arbor’ and ‘Swifty’ are also characters very much in the mould of social realism. Both being from low economic backgrounds and with brittle, bone china families they have an evident and eminent brotherly bond between one another that seems to act as a protective blanket from the harsh and unforgiving world that they inhabit. The intensity of their bond recalls the Shane Meadow’s film A Room for Romeo Brass (1999), and like this film the two are inseparable but wildly differing in both the shapes of their bodies and their personalities. Whilst Arbor is a small, scrawny tearaway with ADHD and anger problems, Swifty is a large, slow and sensitive boy who has a love of horses.
Wilde’s Victorian era children’s tale tells of how two children trespass upon the garden of a giant. In the film this dynamic is transfigured when Arbor and Swifty, after hearing of the money making potential of scrap, intrude upon a scrap metal yard run by a man ironically called Kitten who embodies this ‘giant’. Kitten is crooked and embittered, a warped Stig of the dump figure. Seemingly bereft of morals he calculatedly exploits the two boys for his own ends, and the scenes involving him are often deeply sinister and unsettling. Kitten also arranges for Swifty to become involved in a horse and cart drag race on a motorway, and the race itself is one of the most vivid of all the film’s set pieces in its astonishing intensity and kinetic dynamism.
By contrast to such unchained, frenetic scenes as the drag race there are also shots which reflect a certain spiritual lyricism which even flirts and skirts with the tropes of magic realism; for instance there are numerous close-ups of the eyes of a horse and then later when a character is present only metaphysically within the action. As-well as the abstract, truncating effect of the camera’s closeness, the camera’s height is also creative and charged with meaning. It similarly restricts a totality of vision by often maintaining a low camera height, and this technique is wonderfully effective in its adopting of a child’s perspective alongside our two prepubescent protagonists, and recalls the wonderfully employed low camera positions in the Lynne Ramsey short Gasman (1998) in this regard.
For all its possible gentle, lyrical moments and occasional glimmers of relief, The Selfish Giant is a film that is predominantly cut through with a raging black sea of torment as the brutal reality of their world being a gaping stigmata emitting nothing but pain and suffering is rendered with unflinching and unerring focus by Barnard. Influences may abound, but this doesn’t in any way detract from what is an affecting and genuinely compelling film directed by one of the keenest talents working in British cinema today.