The Selfish Giant

The Selfish Giant
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Director: Clio Barnard
Cert: Club
Genre: Drama
Starring: Conner Chapman, Shaun Thomas, Sean Gilder, Lorraine Ashbourne, Ian Burfield
Running Time: 0 hr 26 mins

Clio Barnard's first film was so determinedly weird you left the cinema worrying if it might end up being a glorious one-off. The Arbor placed recordings from friends and family of late playwright Andrea Dunbar into the mouths of actors to create a troubling portrait of a Bradford estate. How do you follow that?

Triumphantly, as it happens. The Selfish Giant is a more conventional film than The Arbor, but it is every bit as transfixing.

Returning to grimmer corners of West Yorkshire, Barnard tells us the story of two incorrigible young lads named Arbor (Conner Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas). The former is small, aggressive and constantly agitated. The latter is large, considerate and more thoughtful. Both raised in unsettled families – Arbor looks to have been diagnosed with something like ADHD – they find themselves excluded from school and set out on a series of increasingly dangerous adventures.

The boys sell copper wiring to a dodgy scrap metal merchant named Kitten (played by the always dangerous Sean Gilder), who, impressed by Swifty’s way with horses, considers him as a potential jockey in a local cart race. Amid all the banter and confusion, a vague disaster appears to be lurking over the horizon.


Viewers keen to divine the parallels with Oscar Wilde's similarly titled fairytale will have a job on their hands. The film is as sad as the tale but a great deal less sentimental. Working very much in the realist mode of Ken Loach, Barnard draws robust performances from her two non-professional leads as she charts the dynamics of a perilous – but profound – teenage friendship.

Featuring spookily beautiful photography by Mike Eley, this hugely humane film manages the difficult business of persuading us to care for Arbor, even as his irresponsible actions threaten to lead the boys towards catastrophe.

It is also notable for allowing hope and humour to mingle with the misery. Wilde’s story and this peculiar tribute do, at least, have that much in common.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic