The final film I’m considering here is more obviously ‘social realist’ in its approach than Ratcatcher: indeed, Time Out’s film critic described it as ‘Kes revisited’. The Selfish Giant was Clio Barnard’s second film, after the ground-breaking quasi-documentary The Arbor, in which actors lip-synched to previously recorded interviews with the troubled Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar and her friends and family. The Selfish Giant is also set in Bradford, and features characters based on people Barnard met during her research there. It uses several amateur or first-time actors, and there is a spontaneous, documentary feel about some of the scenes shot in scrap metal yards and at amateur harness races. However, the film was apparently inspired by a fairy tale of the same name written by Oscar Wilde in 1888. According to Barnard, this is ‘a story about what happens when children are excluded’, and one that shows ‘the wounds of love’ – although frankly the parallels between the narratives are not immediately obvious.
The Selfish Giant focuses on Arbor and his friend Swifty, two thirteen-year-olds living on a run-down council estate. Arbor lives with his mother and his drug-addicted older brother, and has some form of ADHD, which often gets him into trouble. When the boys are suspended from school after a fight, they decide to earn money collecting and selling scrap metal. They quickly realize that stealing copper from telephone, railway and power lines can be lucrative. They take their scrap to a local dealer, Kitten, who initially resists their attempts to get involved in the business, although he eventually allows them to borrow a horse and cart to collect scrap. Kitten also owns horses and competes in harness racing; and after he fires his main rider for losing a race, he recognises Swifty’s experience and talent with horses and asks him to take his place.
Arbor is envious of Kitten’s interest in Swifty. He steals pieces of copper scrap from Kitten and tries to sell them to another dealer. When he is refused admission at the other yard, he makes a deal with some men who offer to sell the scrap for him: however, they recognize it as stolen and keep the money. Kitten finds out about this and intimidates Arbor into stealing some high voltage wire to make up for his loss. After Arbor cuts the wire, wearing rubber gloves and boots Kitten has given him, Swifty helps to lift it out of the manhole, but is electrocuted and killed. Arbor returns to the scrap yard and attacks Kitten, but Kitten tells the police he is responsible, and is arrested. Arbor gets away, but he is distraught about Swifty’s death. He sits day and night outside Swifty’s mother’s house until, after several rejections, she allows him to hug her. In a final scene, Arbor is shown grooming the horse Swifty had been working with.
Arbor is probably the least sympathetic of the central characters in these four films, although he is far from wholly to blame for what happens. His ADHD makes him prone to bursts of anger and impulsive behaviour, especially as his older brother steals his medication to feed his drug habit. Arbor is never still for long, and is constantly climbing lampposts and swinging on gates, and generally looking for mischief. He is insolent to his mother, and to the teachers and the police who visit the home, although he is clearly scared of Kitten even as he seeks to emulate him. He and Swifty are both bullied at school and mocked by their peers, largely on the grounds of their poverty. However, Arbor gives his mother some of the money he earns from scrapping; and he is not directly to blame for Swifty’s death – Swifty goes down into the manhole of his own volition without gloves and rubber boots. Arbor’s grief, and the final shot of him grooming the horse, also imply some form of redemption: we feel that he has learned a painful lesson, even if it isn’t clear how he will be able to act upon it.
Here again, there is an element of ‘coming of age’ in the narrative, although the visions of adulthood seem wholly undesirable. Arbor is small for his age, and the scrappers are initially amused by the laddish swagger he adopts in his efforts to enrol as an apprentice to their masculine world – although he does enjoy some success, at least initially. The adult male characters are all unreservedly brutal. The ironically-named Kitten is aggressive, cruel and unscrupulous, and rules the scrap yard like a tyrant: he is, one assumes, the ‘selfish giant’ of the title, although unlike Oscar Wilde’s character (and despite his final, somewhat surprising confession to the police) he is not ultimately redeemed. The other scrappers who offer to sell Arbor’s stolen metal are equally mocking and deceitful. Meanwhile, Swifty’s father constantly bullies his family, and especially his wife; and in one scene he is shown selling the family sofa in order to pay off the electricity bill, leaving his children to eat their dinner sitting on the floor. The female characters – the boys’ mothers and Kitten’s partner, who also works at the scrap yard – are much more caring and sympathetic, but they are utterly intimidated and downtrodden by the men.
As in Kes and Ratcatcher, the possibility of escape from these circumstances – especially for Swifty – is partly associated with nature. Yet this is not a pastoral vision of nature. The film is repeatedly punctuated with still, contemplative shots of the fields near the town, where sheep and horses graze; yet the animals are surrounded by crackling electricity pylons and vast cooling towers that loom ominously in the mist. Like Billy Casper’s kestrel, Kitten’s horses need to be trained, in this case to run in punishing road races; and as Arbor makes clear, the primary motivation for Kitten in this respect is to do with the money he can make through gambling. In fact, unlike Swifty, Arbor doesn’t care much about the horses (at least until the final shots); and at one point, Swifty accuses him of electrocuting a foal with a stray wire from one of the pylons, although he denies this.
Right from the start, Arbor appears to be the dominant partner. While Arbor prickles with excess energy, Swifty is overweight and a little slow. The boys are excluded from school after Arbor intervenes to stop Swifty being beaten up by bullies – although Swifty’s suspension is only temporary, while Arbor’s is permanent. While Arbor is delighted to be sent home, Swifty continues to attend school at his mother’s insistence, sitting in the foyer even though he is not allowed to attend lessons; and when Arbor turns up to fetch him, the school receptionist accuses him of being a ‘bad influence’. However, their relationship eventually starts to fray. When Kitten refuses to pay them for a burnt-out car they have brought in (with considerable effort), Arbor takes revenge by stealing from him; and when Swifty finds out, Arbor accuses him of being ‘soft’ and tells him ‘you need to harden up’. Swifty’s care for the horses, and his expertise in training them, means that he is favoured by Kitten; and it is partly jealousy of this that feeds Arbor’s wish for revenge, and eventually leads to Swifty’s death.
There is little that is ‘child-like’ about Arbor or his world, even when compared (for example) with James in Ratcatcher: indeed, he is eager to leave childhood behind. Here again, children are persistently victimized, deceived and exploited by adults. Confined to chaotic homes, living on the detritus of a declining post-industrial economy, their lives are almost unremittingly bleak. There are a few moments of intimacy here – Swifty strokes the horses, Arbor and Swifty bounce together on a trampoline in the garden, Arbor comforts his mum after their house is smashed up by drug dealers – but very little joy or fun to be had. The boys’ families seem unable to cope, not just with poverty itself but also with the challenges and problems (such as drugs, alcohol and disability) that accompany it. As the New York Times critic argued, the film’s eventual outcome is perhaps too obviously foreshadowed, not least by the insistent buzzing of the electricity pylons throughout. This isn’t so much a ‘spoiler’ problem as a matter of the film’s grim ideological determinism:
Intent on showing that Arbor and Swifty live in a world of radically limited possibilities, barely sustained by their families and failed by the state, Ms. Barnard locks them into a narrative prison.
In this respect, the final shot of Arbor grooming the horse seems little more than a token gesture – and it is notable that an alternative ending, in which Arbor is seen winning a horse race, was not used. If The Friendly Giant is indeed ‘Kes revisited’, it provides even fewer grounds for hope than Loach’s film.