“British filmmaker Clio Barnard made a sensational debut with The Arbor in 2010, about the troubled dramatist Andrea Dunbar,” begins Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian. “Now Barnard’s intensely anticipated follow-up has arrived at Cannes, showing in the Director’s Fortnight strand. It is a variation on a theme by Oscar Wilde, a new secular version of Wilde’s children’s tale The Selfish Giant, which challenges the audience to rethink how redemption is achieved in a world without Christ and which of its characters the title actually refers to. This film may not exactly have the sophistication of The Arbor, being a more straightforwardly social realist drama in the super-evolved ‘Loach 3.0’ style of Andrea Arnold or Lynne Ramsay: beautifully photographed and intensely considered and controlled, with urban pastoral landscapes of deprivation transfigured into beauty.”
“Barnard takes Wilde’s blossomy parable and strips it down for parts,” writes Robbie Collin the Telegraph. The Selfish Giant is about “two 13-year-old boys from Bradford whose dire circumstances have effectively banished them from their own childhoods…. Arbor (Conner Chapman) is a hyperactive knot of twitches, thanks to a combination of ADHD and energy drinks. Swifty (Shaun Thomas) is a taciturn lump…. In the opening sequence, the boys watch thieves stealing copper cable from the railway line. They are entranced, and when a quirk of fate leaves the cable in their hands, they take it to the nearest scrapyard: a dark, Satanic place with crackling fires and crunching claws that William Blake would have found all too familiar.”
“Such films tend to stand or fall on their performances,” writes Neil Young in the Hollywood Reporter, “and Barnard—aided by casting-director Amy Hubbard—has found a couple of rough-edged trump cards in Chapman and Thomas. Relentlessly, defensively foul-mouthed in a manner that would make even David Mamet or The Thick of It‘s Malcolm Tucker blush, both lads quickly emerge as fully-rounded, entirely believable characters whose friendship rings consistently true on every level.”
“Where The Arbor, for all its innovation in other departments, retained a certain televisual quality to its construction,” writes Guy Lodge for Variety, “The Selfish Giant is boldly, broodingly cinematic. Backed by an effectively spare score from Harry Escott that sometimes recalls his work on Steve McQueen’s Shame, D.P. Mike Eley’s compositions carefully play the dark, rolling landscape against the squat impositions of town planners. The relentless Yorkshire weather, meanwhile, is almost palpable in Barnard’s chosen palette of stormy blues and mossy greens.”
“The film is gently dramatic, strikingly moving and impressively memorable,” agrees Screen‘s Mark Adams.
Update: “There may be no British film in the main competition for the Palme D’Or this year, but that has not stopped a Yorkshirewoman from becoming the toast of Cannes,” writes Charlotte Higgins, reporting on the press conference for the Guardian. “While ‘the rest of the world responds to it,’ she said, there is ‘perhaps a bit of modesty’ when it comes to the British embracing their own cinematic tradition. She named her personal galaxy of admired British directors: ‘[The late] Alan Clarke is a brilliant filmmaker, as are Penny Woolcock, Ken Loach, Lynne Ramsay, Andrea Arnold … I think we have a lot to be proud of and I think we should be holding our heads up high.'” And Barnard on The Selfish Giant: “This economy is declining and there are not many opportunities for these boys and I guess I find that upsetting. The ‘selfish giant’ of my film is a selfish ideology. I liked Glenda Jackson‘s speech [in the House of Commons after the death of Lady Thatcher] when she said that under Thatcher selfishness and greed had become virtues. The film is about what got lost. And what we need to value and hold on to. It’s a fable about that as much as about an intimate and loving friendship and about loss.”
Update, 5/18: Here’s “a straightforward kitchen-sink melodrama that one could easily mistake for the work of Ken Loach or Shane Meadows… though only if those directors were working near the top of their game.” Mike D’Angelo at the AV Club: “Barnard patiently accumulates vivid details of this impoverished milieu, perpetually overcast yet vibrant, bringing the film to a slow boil that culminates in tragedy. Her work with her two young leads is exemplary, with Chapman in particular expressing depths of regret so profound that he becomes almost physically painful to watch. That The Selfish Giant feels familiar rather than groundbreaking makes it seem to some degree a step back for its talented director, but she’s avoided the sophomore jinx with aplomb.”
You can also watch the post-screening Q&A (7’29”).
Update, 5/20: “Two elements stood out for me,” notes Kieron Corless, writing for Sight & Sound: “the film’s vivid evocation of edge-lands, the scrubby, generally disregarded hinterland areas on the outskirts of British cities, and its depiction of the actual physical circulation of money, its corrupting effects given a tangible feel and presence…. Of the films I’ve seen here so far, this was by some distance the most rapturously received by its audience.”
Updates, 5/21: “The Selfish Giant is deeply tender, one of the most touching movies about friendship between men—or boys—I’ve ever seen,” writes the Voice‘s Stephanie Zacharek. “This is also the most delicate kind of social realism; it never feels like a screed.”
“Is there a more intriguing British filmmaker than Clio Barnard right now?” asks Adam Woodward at Little White Lies, where he quickly replies, “possibly not…. Yet despite being confidently made and superbly acted—Barnard’s insistence on casting two unknowns in the lead roles was a gamble that pays off in a big way—The Selfish Giant lacks the unique tone of voice that made Barnard’s previous work so urgent and relevant. For all its high points (and there are many) this tale of friendship and stolen youth fits too neatly into the grim-up-north mold. It’s a melancholy tune we’ve heard many times before, and no matter which way you spin it, it always ends up sounding the same. Here’s hoping Barnard returns with something a little more fresh and invigorating next time out.”
“Chapman’s naturalistic performance, aided by Barnard’s unassuming direction, makes it easy to feel invested in his plight,” writes Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn. “He’s both a victim of circumstance and willing to take advantage of it as an act of defiance. Riding around the vapid, foggy countryside with Swifty in a horse-drawn carriage, he gives the impression of a pint-sized western hero, the kind of image no doubt driving his antics until the fantasy decays from under his feet.”
Update, 5/24: Sundance Selects has picked up North American rights.
Updates, 10/25: “The wonder of Barnard’s very moving film is that, although shot in gritty realist fashion against a backcloth of extreme deprivation, it is true to the spirit of Wilde’s story,” writes Geoffrey Macnab in the Independent. This is “one of the strongest films in what is shaping up as a vintage year for British cinema.”
Will Brooker for Times Higher Education: “The selfish giant is the system of government that prompts Kitten to run a semi-legal shadow industry, but polices him for his enterprise, keeping him on the edges of official business without safety checks or healthcare. The selfish giant is the society that structures the lives of Arbor, Swifty and their adult equivalents, boxes them into poverty and offers them only limited and risky avenues for escape: the society that keeps them in these desperate, reckless spaces where they run, dodge, swerve, struggle and sometimes die. This, ultimately, is the power of Barnard’s modern fable: that it is not a fairy tale, but—in its broader lessons if not its specifics—a true story.”
“The Selfish Giant is one of the great modern British films,” declares Nigel Andrews in the Financial Times. More from Peter Bradshaw (Guardian, 5/5), Dave Calhoun (Time Out, 4/5), Charlie Lyne (Little White Lies, where David Jenkins interviews Barnard), and Emma Simmonds (Arts Desk). And the Critics Round Up entry’s been updated as well.
Update, 10/26: “Having chosen to pitch her stall this time directly on the royal road of British art cinema, Barnard nevertheless brings a distinctive poetic spin to her material, making the film as much a study of the porous boundary between town and country as Kes was,” writes Jonathan Romney for Sight & Sound.
Updates, 12/21: “Given her background in documentaries, it’s not surprising that Barnard seems interested in the story mostly as an excuse to observe these colorful individuals in this impoverished milieu, which she somehow depicts as both perpetually overcast and vibrant.” Mike D’Angelo at the AV Club: “Patiently accumulating vivid details, she executes a slow boil that culminates in tragedy, yet the movie avoids feeling like a dose of British miserabilism, if only because everybody on-screen (including a host of supporting characters with nicknames like Price Drop) seems so aggressively alive…. That The Selfish Giant feels familiar rather than groundbreaking makes it seem to some degree a step back for its talented director, but she’s avoided the sophomore jinx with aplomb.”
“You can guess, pretty early, how the story will end,” writes A.O. Scott in the New York Times. “This is not just a spoiler problem, but also a conceptual, perhaps even an ideological, shortcoming. 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. Their fates seem predetermined less by their circumstances than by the iron will and limited imagination of their creator.”
Noel Murray for the Dissolve: “Chapman, Thomas, and Gilder are all terrific in The Selfish Giant: intense but natural, with fuller emotional ranges than their character types initially suggest. They aren’t all rage and mope; there’s joy there, and tenderness, and a certain amount of pride in how they’re learned how to live by their wits, in a society that isn’t giving them many breaks.”
And Barnard is “attentive to their speech, to the melody of their dialect and the rhythm of their back-and-forths,” writes Oscar Moralde for Slant. “The sentiments shared by the two are always clear, even when the dialogue isn’t.”
“Every moment in this film is alive with possibility, with the chance that everything will go haywire in a new way,” writes Bilge Ebiri at Vulture.
“The light, the soot, the fog, the way sun hits the sides of buildings, the subtitled slang-riddled dialect, the posturing, the moments of ribald humor and casual bullying, the offhand exploitation of children and horses, all bespeak great powers of observation,” writes Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com. “Barnard sometimes films the boys in long shot. They’re flyspecks inching along cracked pavement and weed-strewn fields, industrial northlands looming behind them. Even when these images are used for rhythmic purposes—to give the eye a chance to breathe between bouts of claustrophobic close-up camerawork—they’re never purely pictorial; they’re putting the boys and their story in a larger context. A low-speed chase between rickety horse carts is nerve-wracking not just because you worry about the horses and riders, who are being followed by a caravan of drunken spectators and bettors, but because you’re seeing real horses, people and cars on real roads.”
“While the British media have understandably drawn a comparison to Loach’s groundbreaking 1969 British film Kes,” writes Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir, “Barnard is just as much following in the footsteps of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and Ramin Bahrani’s strikingly similar 2007 New York indie Chop Shop. I advise you to brace yourself; like those films, The Selfish Giant may tear your heart out. But the passion and possibility Barnard shows us among forgotten people in a forgotten place are fully worth it.”
“Devastating in its simplicity and honesty, The Selfish Giant is a colossus of feeling,” writes Inkoo Kang in the Voice. Emma Myers for Film Comment: “The film’s final image completes a full visual circle that is sure to make even the stiffest upper lip quiver with emotion.” And for Jordan M. Smith at Ioncinema, The Selfish Giant is “a powerful work of cinema that subtly captures the traumas of domestic neglect in a world continually struggling with poverty and addiction.”
Updates, 1/7: “From the beginning, you can feel this restive, pulsing movie burn from discontent toward disaster,” writes Anthony Lane in the New Yorker. “The whole thing should sap the spirit, and make you despair of a lost and wasted country, yet you are constantly shocked awake by the energy of Arbor, whether it is spent on insolence, initiative, or grief. The boy’s a bright wire.”
“The Arbor was an unprecedented film,” writes David Thomson in the New Republic. “The Selfish Giant is more restrained formally, but I think it is the better of the two films…. Barnard is not as overtly politicized as Ken Loach, and there is no question that the textile industry in Bradford declined as it became possible and then essential to have clothes made far more cheaply in parts of the world where exploitation was more complete. But in the age of Margaret Thatcher, there was a campaign against the North (much of which traditionally voted Labor) and against the last old industry, coal-mining, and today there is a state of impoverished neglect in some of the best rural parts of Britain that amounts to official indifference…. It is [Barnard’s] genius that she can see poetry in this desolation just as she can tell us so much about people and their ties by looking at their hands.”
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