CLOSE SHOT | The Selfish Giant

Tenderness and cruelty colour the Yorkshire landscape in Clio Barnard's The Selfish Giant. By Louis Rogers


Waiting outside his friend Swifty’s house, Arbor, the restless thirteen-year-old protagonist of The Selfish Giant, starts shinning his way up a lamppost. The scene is a council estate in Bradford, filmed unshowily: brick, mud, grey hedgerows. Arbor leaps up the lamppost, which extends out of frame, and, impressively, keeps climbing. Suddenly the shot is reconfigured – Arbor is climbing up and out of it, as if trying to exit the film itself. It’s a simple but deft image that achieves an acute kind of figuration without distorting the actualities at hand. Then Swifty appears, Arbor slides down the post, and the moment has passed without being dissolved. “What have you been doing?” asks Swifty. “Been climbing that, waiting for you,” Arbor replies frankly.

The Selfish Giant is a gripping piece of realism whose characters’ lives are never anything less than wholly believable. Clio Barnard’s background is in conceptual art; her earlier films experiment ingeniously with fiction and documentary, using professional actors to lip-sync recorded interviews. Barnard told TANK, “I don’t really believe in realism,” in an interview in 2013. The same curiosity about fact and fiction underscores The Selfish Giant’s accomplished realism, perhaps most discernible in its cinematography. The film’s opening shot is of a crowded starlit sky above a horizon punctuated by the peaceful silhouettes of horses. Suddenly, this tranquility is swapped for the cramped horizontals of the underside of Arbor’s bed, where he’s raging against its confines.

This cut becomes emblematic of the film. Repeatedly, Barnard comes to rest on the semi-industrial Yorkshire landscape, finding real, unhackneyed beauty in its skies, animals and infrastructure, before switching to fast-moving life on the estates. These aren’t different worlds, but the same. The filmmaking isn’t trying to find beauty in deprivation as a consolation. Instead, it’s steadily, almost reverentially attentive to the reality of the place where it’s set, equally liable to reveal vulnerability and tenderness as it is harshness and cruelty. Recursive shots of pylons against dawn skies (elevated by thrumming sound design) suggest a fabular world not in order to reduce its characters to ciphers, but to elevate their struggles and hopes with true and truly affecting narrative treatment. The film’s poetic eye makes it a more compellingly real experience than many documentaries.


The Selfish Giant is part of TANK’s season Beyond Varda. Subscribe for just £3 a month for access to a new film every week.