Oscar Wilde’s tale about the selfish giant who built a high wall around his garden can be thought about as a story in which all directions meet, the up and down of transcendental rewards and punishments and the side to side of earthly goings-on. A giant returns from a seven-year-visit to a friend and finds his garden overrun by small children. He erects a wall to keep them out: “My own garden is my own garden”. As a punishment neither spring nor summer visits him. But one day the small children find a hole in the wall and enter into the forbidden space. The giant observes how the gardens’ trees, that the children climb, immediately start to bloom. However, one tiny child can not reach high enough to get to the first branch of one of the trees. The giant, overjoyed that his own injunction has been breached and that the solitary winter has ended, helps the little boy up. They become friends, and by the time the giant is about to die the boy returns with stigmata to bring him along to his garden up there, “which is Paradise.” The ending resonates with the beginning of chapter 18 in the Gospel of Matthew: “Except ye be converted, and become little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” “But who so shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me”, Jesus extrapolates, “it were better for him that a millstone were hung about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.”
Clio Barnard’s loose adaptation of Wilde’s story treads carefully around the centre of an axis where the transcendental up and down meet the lateral existence here on earth. The opening scenes present the conflict starkly and beautifully, and create an image of a gentle balance between the two modes. In the first shot the horizon is one third up from the bottom of the screen. Below: a gentle hill, above: the immense and dark night sky. In between, the silhouettes of horses grazing. Thus far we are in Steven Spielberg-land. It could be a sequence from War Horse (2011). The spectator is sucked into the sublime. The next scene challenges the first one. A young boy, Arbor Fenton (Conner Chapman), lies under a bed. The horizon has now moved two-thirds up and constitutes a suffocating lid. It is a place from which Arbor can only be dislodged by a loving coaxing, sideways. This love connecting individuals here on earth will return in the end of the film, and it thus constitutes a narrative arch holding the story together.
What is most interesting in Clio Barnard’s celebrated film is not her skills in handling stock ingredients of British social realism, a tradition in any case dodged by an eternal, and slightly tiring, discussion with a Romantic heritage. Take children, council estates, an animal, a liminal territory between city and countryside, or better; the reconquering of Albion by nature after the havoc brought by the Blakean “dark satanic mills.” Add, then, the death of the beloved animal, like a kestrel to be buried in the garden (Loach’s Kes from 1969). However much the story tries to deal with earthly existence, something slips out of its hands and starts appearing on a transcendental register of up and down and, before you know it, this has made the entire work into a morality drama. Gone are the political implications of lateral connections, be they love between individuals, revolutionary acts or systems of oppression. Representations of nature, here in the guise of animals, seem hopelessly prone to this tendency towards the transcendental (the most intelligently funny twist on this theme might be found in Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher from 1999 in which Kenny sends his mouse to the moon). It is as though Barnard is aware of this risk and makes sure to overlay the image of up and down with horizontal connections on all levels, not only in loving human bonds but also through the faceless and terrifying systems in which value and communication circulate in late capitalism. The religious drift is in other words kept in check by an unfaltering attention to how not only humans, but also things hang together.
The Selfish Giant is a film about two boys who turn to the scrapping trade after being excluded from the garden of society. Arbor is thrown out of school and his friend Swifty (Shaun Thomas) has been suspended temporarily. They are reluctantly taken in by Kitten (Sean Gilder) who runs a scrap yard and who starts using the boys for illegal scavenging. Kitten is not a straightforward Dickensian character. Gilder successfully manages to portray both Kitten’s latent powerlessness and an awareness of his own fault that is deeply moral. When the tragic ending comes, he does not bother to wait for the millstone to be hung around his neck, but does it out of his own volition in an acceptance of guilt. Kitten is, too, caught up in a web of a political and moral economy over which he ultimately has no control. And what is most fascinating in The Selfish Giant is that this web is in no way merely abstract. It becomes a stark background against which the character, disinterested or selfish, of actions becomes clear.
Arbor and Swifty hunt for metals that make up modern systems of communication (the railroad, the telephone and electricity): terrestrial horizontal systems that seem to be the physical support of the garden of society from which they have been excluded. Their inevitably desperate attempts to tap into these resources appear to only take the shape of cuts to these same lines. They literally hack up cables for things like copper. The odds are massively stacked against them; they are painfully outside this modern world, and maybe not only on account of their social background. There might even be something in their plight that has become universal, felt in different ways and with different intensities on both sides of the wall, which makes it possible for a stranger’s emphatic engagement with their destiny. The menacing humming from the transformer stations create, as in Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964), the image of an environment not fit for man. Industrial society has become a faceless and gigantic humming organism of fast communication maintained by a few experts in high visibility vests. This is, in a British context, a welcome updating of the notion of industry from the mill (the proverbial millstone proved prophetic as the mill laid so much of the land to waste), the pit, and the factory. Those on the outside of this system illustrate the risk that the only way to become attached to it might be by causing a momentary, painful short-circuit. They appear to be simply not needed for anything. In some ways they constitute a lumpenproletariat whose main political function in populist late capitalist democracies is to scare those on the inside into constantly mending the holes in the walls. But the futility of the same act is made clear. In the future more groups will find themselves on the outside, or the peripheries, of material and communication circuits. People are sucked out through the holes rather than infiltrating through them.
The metal and scrap that the film focuses on is on its way to partake in new horizontal circuits passing through the margins, the wastelands. Again, the protagonists have minimal knowledge of their overall place in the system. Kitten sorts his stock and processes the stolen goods so that they can re-enter the game of exchanges. It is a type of processing that we have come to associate with the “Third World.” Growing European income inequalities have brought this trade right back home and given it visibility, even though it is on the other side of the wall. This also introduces a new way to understand the figure of the horse in the film. It is not innocent and impartial nature as such, but a throwback to an era that one prayed would have vanished. It is a development that other countries have already experienced. The economic crash in Argentina, for example, brought back the deceptively merry sound of hooves to the streets. The scrappers and rag-and-bone men and women were back like a spectral greeting of history.
Barnard’s post-industrial Britain with its bleakness and exclusion is expertly captured. The only hope for the characters lies in their relationships to their peers, which in the context of a struggling working class world bereft of many of its old normative intuitions and systems, makes it all the more hopeless. The breakdown of the social fabric of the lower classes fits well into the wishes of the selfish. Still, the most emotional scenes are the ones in which a dysfunctional brother tries to get another from out under the bed in the beginning and end of the film. There is, however, something vaguely amiss in the editing, lending an unfortunate air of television drama and the cinematography is not as intense and interesting as in Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank (2009). But The Selfish Giant is a new and exciting departure in terms of narrative construction of ”realism,” one that does not shy away from giving content and shape to the almost invisible face of modern capitalism in ways that both keep the transcendental language in check and gives it relevance.
Axel Andersson is a writer, critic and historian from Sweden. His works often deal with the intersection of cultural history and media theory. He is the author of A Hero for the Atomic Age: Thor Heyerdahl and the Kon-Tiki Expedition (2010).