IN THE CRITIC’S CHAIR | The Selfish Giant

 

Inspired by the 1888 novel by Oscar Wilde of the same name, The Selfish Giant is a masterpiece of social realism by Clio Barnard, one of the leading contributors to Britain’s realist tradition. Orbiting the lives of Arbor and Swifty, two boys growing up on the estates of Bradford, their story is one of ambition, loss, thrill and vulnerability, a combination that makes Barnard’s work an enduring snapshot of survival in post-industrial Britain.

 

Critics lauded the rural realism of Barnard’s portrayal of life in northern England, as Jonathan Romney notes here for Sight & Sound:

There’s a strikingly eerie ruralist magic to the repeated shots of horses standing on horizons at night – Barnard and DP Mike Eley make strong, often stylised use of horizontals, including the frame of the bed that Arbor sometimes hides under.


Writing for the Financial Times, Nigel Andrews noted the metaphorical weight of each of Barnard’s atmospheric shots:

Cooling towers are etherealised by morning mist. The hum of pylons is like a music of the spheres. Even the scrap mountains are weird Everests, grotesque, majestic monuments to human need or greed. 


Cinematographically, there’s a majestic power to Barnard’s shots of gritty urbanism, juxtaposed with soothing natural landscapes, according to Mark Jenkins writing for NPR:

The documentary-style visuals rely on hand-held camera, natural light and extreme closeups. The results can be unexpectedly lovely, especially when housing estates and junkyards give way to misty fields. 

Despite being lauded as a painterly representation of social realism, or a “Ken Loach 2.0”, Peter Bradshaw drew attention to Barnard’s ability to deliver moments of compelling, unbridled action for the Guardian:

It’s weird to praise something like this for its stunts and non-CGI action sequences, but Barnard's “drag race” scene is superb: a hair-raising Brit-realist Ben-Hur. Two lads piloting horse-drawn traps hurtle down a public road at dawn. 


Writing for Film Comment, Emma Myers praised Barnard’s restraint and avoidance of cheap sentimentality, highlighting the film’s final scene that no critic failed to mention:

With a story that risks mawkishness, Barnard maintains a relatively reserved but highly effective tone. The film’s final image completes a full visual circle that is sure to make even the stiffest upper lip quiver with emotion. 

 

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