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Review: The Selfish Giant

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Two teenagers and a giant


- British Clio Barnard’s second film, presented during the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes, poses questions on the border between help and opportunism.

Review: The Selfish Giant

After a first day marked by the presence of New Zealand director Jane Campion, recipient of the Golden Coach, and the screening of The Congress [+see also:
film review
film profile
 by Israeli Ari Folman, the Directors’ Fortnight, at the heart of this year’s 66th Cannes Film Festival, opened with a screening of The Selfish Giant [+see also:
film focus
interview: Clio Barnard
interview: Clio Barnard
festival scope
film profile
by British director Clio Barnard.

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Far from the fantastical universe of Oscar Wilde’s tale (which the title refers to and on which the story is loosely based), the film focuses on two teenagers, Arbor and Swifty, and on the abusive relationship that ties them to Kitten, a local scrap collector.

Arbor and Swifty have been kicked out of school and, in these days of uncertainty, start finding and stealing pieces of metal that they sell on to Kitten. A backstory looks at the practice of sulkying, referring to races in which vehicles are pulled by horses and locals bet on the outcome. Swifty has a gift for horses and Kitten starts to use him in races on which he is betting. Arbor finds this relationship between his friend and his mentor an increasingly difficult one to handle.

The gloomy atmosphere of social intrigue has Ken Loach echoes and Clio Barnard has built a screenplay around two people which asks questions on the borders between help and opportunism. Kitten, the selfish giant, comes across as a distant character, and the presupposed opportunity he gives the two adolescents hides a reality defined by financial self-interest and an ambition to get them involved in illegal activities.  

A possible ideological reading (capitalist?) of Kitten’s character remains superficial however, even if he was originally intended to be the central character in an early version of the screenplay. After carrying out a number of auditions in schools around Bradford, the director changed the tone of her story, choosing to develop her teenagers’ personalities. This included delving into problematic family relationships, the impotence of institutions and the worry of wondering what to do next when you are thirteen and everything seems grey and suffocating – all under the sky of photography director Mike Eley Bsc.

This choice meant that Barnard made two newcomers Conner Chapman (Arbor) and Shaun Thomas (Swifty) carry the film on their shoulders with their energetic performances. The two operate as opposing, yet complimentary elements. On the one side, an explosive Arbor, and on the other, a fragile and nice Swifty. The tension builds until you discover who will succumb and who will reach catharsis. If a rendition is possible, it is up to the spectator to decide on it.

The Selfish Giant was produced by 2012 Producer on the Move Tracy O’Riordan (read the interview) and is part of sales company Protagonist Films’ line-up.

(Translated from French)


international title: The Selfish Giant
original title: The Selfish Giant
country: United Kingdom
sales agent: Protagonist Pictures
year: 2013
directed by: Clio Barnard
screenplay: Clio Barnard
cast: Sean Gilder, Siobhan Finneran, Lorraine Ashbourne, Steve Evets, Elliott Tittensor, Conner Chapman, Shaun Thomas

main awards/selection

Cannes 2013 Directors' Fortnight
Karlovy Vary Film Festival 2013 
Jerusalem Film Festival 2013 
Sarajevo Film Festival 2013 
Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival 2013 
Warsaw Film Festival 2013 
Hamptons International Film Festival 2013 
BFI London Film Festival 2013 
Stockholm International Film Festival 2013 
AFI Fest 2013 
Seville European Film Festival 2013 

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