Based on Oscar Wilde's children story of the same name, this harsh and yet touching drama of two expelled youths' decent into petty thievery is an emotionally arresting experience that often manages to cut through its own oppressive grit with moments of serene poetry.
The Selfish Giant opens with a magical shot of a meadow in the dead of night, the moonlight bouncing off the backs of horses grazing as two young boys ride their own horse through the shot. The horse actually belongs to Swifty, the larger and more endearing of the two, who has sneaked out with his best friend - the frenetically driven Arbor - one can only imagine as an act of youthful defiance. The two come across a small group of men stealing copper bonding from a railway track, they manage to get off with some of the 'loot' and with the help of local scrap dealer, the dangerously dragon-like Kitten (Sean Gilder), they realise there is money to be earned from such a venture.
With a keen want for money and adventure the boys' home lives both warrant such an extra-curricular activity as their families desperately need it. Swifty's family are introduced to us while in the middle of an electric blackout, the bill hasn't been paid (again) and his many siblings eat cold beans in a harsh winter light. Arbor's situation seems less extreme, as his drug addicted brother brings financial and psychical threat to the household. As their dealings with Kitten increases, not only is the friendship of the two boys tested, but their safety, too, as hardship and adult greed gets concern over the lives of shapeable youth.
The bond between the two boys reminds of Vittorio De Sica's Shoeshine; a film that also used a horse to symbolise innocence and friendship. Nearly all of the exchanges between the characters carry an implied threat and danger is sensed lurking behind any Bradford street corner; in its represntation it's hardly too far a leap to compare such an environment to De Sica's post-war torn streets where living is expensive and survival has rendered life cheap.
The young performers are truly wonderful here, with the motives and emotions of their characters seen registered behind their eyes in the delivery of every line. The friendship between the pure Swifty (Shaun Thomas) and the force of Arbor (Conner Chapman) is apt, too, given the setting of this drama; the serenity of the horses next to the manmade, hazardous power of the electric pylons.
The Selfish Giant carries with it from the start, the tropes of tragedy, the feeling of an unavoidable loss somewhere down the line. Despite this being rather pronounced what's notably impressive is the way writer/director Clio Barnard manages to cut through and deliver an emotional blow that is expected while not losing impact. Most British dramas are known for their grit and socio-realism, a style that often claims to know The truth apposed to A truth; Barnard's film escapes its brutal construction at times, giving way to a transcending poetry that makes this an undoubtably special inclusion to this national cinema.