I get a bit fed up with the British film industry sometimes. We have plenty of homegrown talent and produce some fantastic films, don’t get me wrong, but we have a habit of being rather ‘samey’ with what we choose to make. We have a particular tendency to jump on bandwagons for instance. We had a glut of modern British gangster movies in the 90’s/00’s following Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels as well as dozens of titles whose posters claimed they were “the next Full Monty” or “this year’s Four Weddings”. This was just the industry cashing in though of course and every country does it (especially the USA). What bothers me more are our longer-lasting filmmaking habits. The big two that stand out are period dramas and gritty social realism. A number of them are great of course, but there are so many made and they all share so many attributes that I groan every time a new one comes around.
Saying that, the last couple of years have brought us some great takes on the social realist drama, namely Andrea Arnold’s fine double act of Red Road and Fish Tank. So, although I was a bit dubious about the prospect of watching another dreary tale of how grim it is oop north, I still had high hopes for The Selfish Giant, especially given the incredible reviews it’s been receiving.
Very loosely based on an Oscar Wilde short story of the same name, The Selfish Giant tells the story of two young teenage boys from a council estate in Bradford. Arbor (Conner Chapman) is badly behaved and struggles to control his tantrums brought on by an unnamed condition (possibly ADD). His best friend, the more thoughtful and grounded Swifty (Shaun Thomas), is the only one who can calm him down and the two are inseparable. One night they manage to get their hands on some stolen cabling and make some money from it at a local scrapyard. The owner, Kitten (Sean Gilder), notices Swifty’s skill at handling horses and takes advantage of the two boys and their desire to make easy money so that he can better his chances of winning the local illegal street horse races (?!). Of course things get out of hand and events continually take a turn for the worse for the boys.
The Selfish Giant sat somewhere in the middle of the gritty northern canon of films for me. It contains a mix of the best of the genre along with some of its flaws. On the positive side, the two young leads are fantastic and their untrained performances work brilliantly to create a natural bond between the two. Chapman does a good job of creating a believable little bastard of a character whilst injecting enough warmth and humour for the audience to care what happens to him. Some of the adults don’t fare quite as well though, with Swifty’s mum in particular standing out as being a weak link.
Elsewhere on the negative side, I found the film quite heavy handed at times. Although much of the dialogue feels nicely naturalistic, especially between the two boys, the plot/message driving lines are often very blunt and don’t settle well amongst the more effective moments. Because of this, as well as the general tendency of these types of films, it’s very clear where the film is going from the early stages. The finale did surprise me though. Without wanting to spoil anything, there is a tragic occurrence towards the end which I was expecting, but it happens much earlier than anticipated and the last quarter of the film is about the result and fallout of the incident. This makes for a touching and effective end to the film.
So on a whole the film does work very well. It’s admirably concise and largely well portrayed, but can be a little rough around the edges and heavy handed. It didn’t really veer far enough away from the classic British social realist tropes to truly excite me either so although I can recommend it, it wouldn’t say it has totally quelled my distrust of the genre.
The Selfish Giant is out now in the UK on DVD and Blu-Ray, released by Artificial Eye. I was sent an early screener so can’t comment on the picture or sound quality and it didn’t have any special features included.