‘The Selfish Giant’: Clio Barnard Adapts Oscar Wilde, Sort Of

December 17, 2013 Updated: December 17, 2013

Under the shadow of nuclear containment domes, Arbor and his friend Swifty collect scrap metal with a horse-drawn cart. It is more or less modern-day Yorkshire, but the vibe is often Dickensian. However, it was inspired by Oscar Wilde’s Christian parable. 

Light years removed from the mythical giant’s garden, Clio Barnard creates her own modern fable in “The Selfish Giant,” which opens this Friday at the IFC Center.

Forget the “hard kid to love” cliché. The aggressively annoying Arbor is a hard kid not to pummel whenever you see him. It is not entirely his fault. He is the irregularly medicated, hyperactive product of a completely fractured home. 

Arbor has affection for his mother, but he openly defies her parental authority. He is even more contemptuous of his teachers, welcoming his expulsion from school as a personal victory. Arbor has only one friend, the mild-mannered Swifty, who was also temporarily dismissed from class due to Arbor’s misadventures.

For Arbor, this is a fine turn of events, allowing them time to collect scrap metal for the dodgy local dealer, Kitten (Sean Gilder). The grizzled junkman is the sort of authority figure Arbor can finally relate to. However, Kitten has more use for the horse-savvy Swifty, whom he recruits to drive his trotter in the local unsanctioned sulky races. Always unstable, Arbor takes Kitten’s rejection rather badly.

Evidently, Kitten is the giant (after all, he carries an ax during his big entrance), but viewers will be hard pressed to find any other remnants of Wilde lingering in the film. It hardly matters, though. Barnard’s “Giant” is a grimly naturalistic but deeply humane morality tale. Sort of like Wilde, Barnard ends on a redemptive note, but she really makes viewers work for it.

Eschewing cutesy shenanigans, “Giant” features two remarkably assured performances from its young principal cast members. It is rather rare to see such a thoroughly unlikable young character on-screen, but Conner Chapman wholeheartedly throws himself into the role of Arbor with a twitchy, petulant, tour de force performance. Shaun Thomas nicely counterbalances him as the shy, empathic Swifty.

Barnard masterfully sets the scene and controls the uncompromisingly cheerless vibe, immersing the audience in the profoundly depressed working-class estate. Viewers will definitely feel like they are there, sharing their cold, dingy, over-cramped quarters (and doesn’t that sound appealing?). Think of it as apolitical proletarian cinema. 

Recommended for the work of its young cast and Barnard’s distinctive vision, “The Selfish Giant” opens this Friday (Dec. 20) in New York at the IFC Center.

Joe Bendel writes about independent film and lives in New York. To read his most recent articles, please visit www.jbspins.blogspot.com


The Selfish Giant 
Director: Clio Barnard
Starring: Conner Chapman, Shaun Thomas, Sean Gilder 
Run Time: 1 hour, 31 minutes
Release Date: Dec. 20
Rating: Not rated
3.5 stars out of 5