Oscar Wilde’s Selfish Giant a tale for our times

Connor Chapman and Shaun Thomas star as Arbor and Swifty in The Selfish Giant. Picture: Contributed
Connor Chapman and Shaun Thomas star as Arbor and Swifty in The Selfish Giant. Picture: Contributed
Share this article
Have your say

IN OSCAR Wilde’s fairytale The Selfish Giant, a nasty ogre comes to realise that the permanent winter that has descended upon his world has been caused by his determination to stop children playing in the grounds of his castle.

In Clio Barnard’s new film of the same name, this idea serves as a subtle metaphor for the deleterious effect on communities when society as a whole fails children.

“The original story is about what you lose when you exclude children and I guess that’s what I see the film being about too,” says Barnard of her follow-up to 2010’s critically acclaimed The Arbor. “When I was making The Arbor, I was seeing children who were excluded.

“They were on the margins and didn’t have a lot of opportunities so it seemed to me that if you took this Victorian fairy story and made it about these children, what’s that going to tell us about our responsibility to them?”

The Selfish Giant is set on the same council estate as The Arbor, her experimental docu-drama about the bleak life of the late Bradford-born playwright Andrea Dunbar, but this time revolves around a young ADHD-afflicted teen called Arbor (Conner Chapman) and his fiercely loyal best friend Swifty (Shaun Thomas).

Excluded from school for fighting, and ostracised within their own community, they fall in with a local scrap dealer who uses them to illegally procure copper wiring. With the boys roaming the urban and rural landscapes with a horse-and-cart trying to eke out some kind of living, it’s a film that offers a damning portrait of “Broken Britain” as an almost post-apocalyptic wasteland.

“It does seem like a vision of a future when industry collapses and all the resources have gone,” says Barnard. “But it also looks back to something that feels Dickensian.”

That this world exists in the present is what is most depressing about it. Barnard says the situation makes her angry too, which is hardly surprising since she clearly understands the potential of those on the fringes.

Indeed, both Chapman and Thomas were cast locally and turned out to be naturals in front of the camera. “With Shaun, you could feel the performance in the room, but with Connor it was a revelation when I got to the cutting room because there just seemed to be more and more layers to his performance... Both of them want to continue, so I hope they do.”

• The Selfish Giant is on general release from 25 October

Twitter: @aliharkness