Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Cannes Review of The Selfish Giant

Clio Bernard follows up The Arbor with another harrowing gem

Sat, May 18, 2013, 13:46




Directed by Clio Bernard

Starring Conner Chapman, Shaun Thomas, Sean Gilder

Directors’ Fortnight, 91 min

In recent years the Directors’ Fortnight — tucked away a few hundred metres east of the Palais — has been punching significantly above its weight. This year, one film from that sidebar has already sent dangerous degrees of positive buzz throughout the Cannes networks.

Clio Bernard made her debut with The Arbor, an immaculate, sui generis examination of Yorkshire playwright Andrea Dunbar. Her follow up is not quite as wilfully peculiar, but it tears just as aggressively at the heartstrings. The Selfish Giant is presented as a loose adaptation of the similarly titled fairy story by Oscar Wilde. But the connections are so oblique that, were the film not so titled, even the most fervent Wildean would have trouble identifying the source material.

Bernard will, however, have to face up to a few comparisons with Ken Loach’s Kes. Set near Bradford (just up the road from Kes’s Barnsley), the picture follows the meandering, hopeless adventures of two young men from the class we now euphemistically refer to as “socially excluded”. Arbor (Conner Chapman) is compact, hyper-active, aggressive and smarter than his school believes him to be. Swifty (Shaun Thomas) is large, kind and gifted with horses. As in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, the smaller, less thoughtful partner is the one who holds the whip-hand. Largely at Arbor’s urging, the two boys — after being asked to stay away from school — set out on a scheme to rob wiring for a dodgy scrap-metal merchant (the reliably scary Sean Gilder). Danger comes their way.

The film is, perhaps, a little short on structure in its mid-section. But the flawless standard of the acting and the impossibly moving ending more than make up for any such deficiencies. With great skill, Bernard takes an apparently unlikable child — Arbor swears at his mum and even attempts to steal back stolen goods — and manages to drape him in pathos. There are hints early on that he has been diagnosed with a behavioural disorder, but, even without those nods, the young lad would emerge as a tragic figure. Chapman brings furious energy to the part, while Thomas deals in touching solidity. All this is shot by Mike Eley in impressive shades of gun metal grey.

The film is not entirely without hope. But, when set beside Wilde’s quasi-Christian tale, its refusal to offer easy routes to redemption seems particularly stark. Very powerful stuff.