Echoes of Kes, but not so Wilde about the rest

What’s immediately striking about this – very loose – adaptation of the eponymous Oscar Wilde short is the intriguing world that we’re invited into. It’s a place rarely, if ever, depicted on screen: the domain of the scrapyard. 

Although the archaic holler of ‘rag and bone’, as a scrap merchant steers his horse and cart through village streets, is still heard in rural England, their presence here has the effect of transporting us back in time – it’s a pleasing jolt to see such an anachronism as teenagers riding horseback in this contemporary setting.

Young and wired
This is essentially a story of two young friends, both from under-privileged backgrounds. One, Arbor (Chapman), is a diminutive scallywag who, like a hyperactive poor man’s Midas, messes up everything he touches, while the larger Swifty (Thomas) is by contrast physically awkward, but a kindly presence who serves to calm his friend’s wild impulses. 

In an episode in which Arbor defends Swifty from bullies, the pair are expelled from school – Arbor on a permanent basis. Before long they find their lives entangled with the brutish criminal Kitten (presumably intended to be the eponymous giant, but the connection to Wilde’s story seems tenuous), a scrap merchant who short-changes them on ever more daring culls of metal. The ‘Brightwire’ used in electronic cable tends to fetch the prettiest penny and criminal elements will stop at nothing in acquiring it.  

Looking for Loach
Directed by Clio Barnard, director of the inventive and much-lauded documentary The Arbor (2010), The Selfish Giant evokes strong memories of Lynne Ramsey’s debut The Ratcatcher and it’s impossible not to mention that socialist stalwart of realism, Ken Loach, whose hand, it might be believed, could’ve made this film itself. 
The real faces, the stark setting, the hopelessness that surrounds and binds all these characters together owes quite a debt to Loach – Arbor, in particular, eerily resembles the young knave (David Bradley) in Loach’s iconic Kes (1968). This film also shares that film’s rural, desaturated setting. 

Transparent bleakness
Comparisons like these are no faint praise, but there is also a tiredness that starts to assert itself on the arrival of what is hailed as Britain’s bright new hope at what most strongly (and consciously) resembles a beloved film made almost half a century ago. 

There is also a whiff of contrivance, not only in the perpetual bleakness of the landscape (does the sun never shine?), the ugly home-lives of both characters and the lack of dimension afforded certain supporting characters – but also the narrative’s very visible mechanics as it shrewdly steers the viewer’s emotions. 

I’m reminded of Peter Mullan’s autobiographical Neds, which deals, in a similar tone, with another adolescent descent, yet that film maintains a vitality, an urgency, that this film does not. 

Any spontaneity in The Selfish Giant exists inside reliably structured narrative – whereas Neds could barely contain its mad heart. For what are impeccably-lensed, excellent performances – especially from the two young leads – and a deeply atmospheric sense of place, there is some distance between this film and its maker.