In Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant, the title character lives in a castle surrounded by stunning gardens filled with flowers and trees that draw the attention of the town’s children, who arrive every day to play amongst the fragrant, colorful wonders. “Here and there over the grass stood beautiful flowers like stars, and there were twelve peach-trees that in the spring-time broke out into delicate blossoms of pink and pearl, and in the autumn bore rich fruit” wrote Wilde, describing a place so joyful that “the birds sat on the trees and sang so sweetly that the children used to stop their games in order to listen to them. ‘How happy we are here!’ they cried to each other.”
Hold that image in your mind for a few seconds before opening your eyes and seeing the “reality” of the garden in Clio Barnard’s take on the Wilde story. The writer/director’s vision of the terrenely paradise described by Wilde has less to do with romanticism and everything to do with escapism and comes not in the shape of an exuberant garden, but of a scrap yard owned by the farcically-named Kitten (Sean Gilder) who, like a villain out of Dickens, spends his time counting the coins he makes from the old metal pieces.
Kitten’s magical yard catches the attention of two children: the hyperactive Arbor (Conner Chapman) and his best friend, the more introverted Swifty (Shaun Thomas). While Arbor is a problem child—the police show up at his house looking for him and he always seems to be getting into some sort of fight at school—Swifty is quieter, more pensive, and definitely less interested in getting into trouble. However, he can’t seem to say no to Arbor. The two often spend their free time collecting metal pieces to go and sell Kitten.
Kitten thinks of the children as nuisances, who not only can’t collect enough metal to make it worth his while, but also on some level remind him of a life full of possibility which he has now completely given up on. In his yard lives his race horse, who seems to react well to Swifty, finally revealing a use for the boys. Jealous by the kindness Kitten shows his friend, Arbor sets up a revenge plan that leads to tragic consequences, making the film seem like an amalgam of Dickensian youths, postmodern fairy tales, and the kind of bittersweet realism favored by British master filmmaker Ken Loach.
It seems as if director Barnard studied Loach’s films, particularly the heartbreaking tone he used in Kes, which had a child find “magic” in the unlikeliest of places. What’s interesting about Barnard’s technique is that despite her keen eye for raw detail and realities that feel almost too real, she never completely detaches herself from her story and characters. The most wondrous realization in The Selfish Giant is that it might very well be the filmmaker herself who allows her heart to open to these beings who are taking over her yard of creation.
In her previous film, the docudrama The Arbor, a portrait of the late writer Andrea Dunbar, Barnard displayed a penchant for acute irony and observation that other than having her explore the same kind of settings, in no way prepared us for the sensitivity she displays in The Selfish Giant. She gets outstanding performances from the cast, particularly the children, who seem to be in no way intimidated by the camera.
Chapman is both adorable and infuriating, as he injects Arbor with an energy that makes us understand why he would make people tiresome and impatient, but in his quieter scenes he shows a unique quality: he can’t conceal his emotions from the lens, his feelings are so on the surface that we can’t help but feel his pain and his anxiety. Thomas, inversely, seems to always be holding back; he makes Swifty into a creature full of fear and the hope that one day he will be able to live past this.
Barnard, interestingly enough, doesn’t promise her characters anything that life itself wouldn’t allow them to have, she observes them, follows them, and lets life follows its course, which is why The Selfish Giant always seems to be highlighting a return to social realism that’s less critical and more open-hearted.
The Selfish Giant is presented in a great transfer that highlights Mike Eley’s cinematography. The film by itself is wonderful, but the DVD also includes bonus features like a behind the scenes short documentary, interviews with Barnard and the cast, and a theatrical trailer that make it a worthy addition to your library. It’s also one of the best films released in 2013, which mysteriously went under the radar in the midst of awards season.