It’s the theme of the week. (See also Ender’s Game and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2.) Wily kids exploited by wilier grown-ups. What else can a cynical adult world do with these crafty perishers? Modern children can outplay us not just physically – all that agility and running about – but also mentally.
But kids can be redeemers as well. The Selfish Giant is one of the great modern British films. Oscar Wilde’s same-name story, about a giant who bans children from his garden until one Christly young trespasser “saves” him, seems at first glance to have inspired nothing beyond the title. Clio Barnard has written and directed a poetic, moody, Yorkshire-set film with a slow-gathering plot and harrowing climax. The boy hero, Arbor (Conner Chapman), a wiry, petty-thieving urchin, might be named after Barnard’s last movie: The Arbor, a docudrama about northern playwright Andrea Dunbar, tense with ellipsis and surreal imagination.
Arbor’s pudgy pal Swifty (Shaun Thomas) – a little Christly, perhaps – loves horses. He rides and even trap-races them, when not lumbering earthbound in the wake of Arbor’s escapades. The boys nick scrap from gardens; they cut cable from railway lines. They even covet a monster pylon cable. Could they wrestle that without risking their lives, and sell it to local scrapyard king Kitten (Sean Gilder)?
Maybe Kitten is the “giant”. Or maybe the giant is just the doomy enormity of poverty, with its capacious maw for the ill-gotten, the crime-gotten, the anyhow-gotten. Not since Kes has yearning soared so eloquently in a story about deprived lives, nor have blighted landscapes so stirred and shaken themselves into the beatific and poetic. 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.
There is no God watching all this. The film’s only staring eye, a recurring one, is that of Swifty’s horse. Its mute gleam seems to plead to the boys, “Go so far. But don’t go further.” At their age exigency keeps blurring into adventure. Danger produces the daily bread until danger becomes the daily bread. In Chapman, Barnard has found a face dazzlingly honest and mercurial and a manner comically, at times, commanding. (He orders a policeman visiting the family home, “Shoes off!”) Just when we think nothing can conquer Arbor’s heroic resilience, the catastrophe comes that finally has to come. There comes too, cudgelled from tragedy, a form of redemption. In great cinema everything we witness is unexpected until the moment when we realise everything we have witnessed is, and in a measure always has been, inevitable.