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DVD Review: The Selfish Giant

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This excellently acted and frequently affecting Northern-set drama cements Clio Barnard’s place amongst a band of new voices in the British social realist movement that was once home to mainly men, most notably Ken Loach and Mike Leigh.

Now a vibrant wave of female directors, including Sally El Hosaini, Andrea Arnold and Barnard are wielding the baton for gritty dramas about the working-classes. The Selfish Giant doesn’t have the jolt of incredible energy that fuelled Arnold’s 2009 masterpiece, Fish Tank, or the innovative approach to form of Barnard’s previous work The Arbor, but it does offer a brilliantly bleak and very touching insight into life as a child on the outskirts of Bradford in less-than-comfortable living conditions.

The film follows the escalating rebellion of two boys, Arbor and Swifty, and their involvement with a scrap dealer who keeps them busy when they should be at school. Though their exploits furnish them with more money than they have had before, resentment and unrest builds up between them and their family lives become increasingly volatile.

Sean Gilder plays the scrap dealer (named, rather oddly, Kitten) and it is he who allows the film to form a link with its title’s namesake, the Oscar Wilde story published in his 1888 children’s anthology. Kitten’s kingdom is not the beautiful garden of the Wilde story, but instead a painfully depressing scrap yard. As the film goes on, he utilises the boy’s talents: Swifty’s talent for riding horses and Arbor’s for scavenging (and, most dangerously, steeling cable from power stations.)

The story builds to a devastating final act that provides little for the viewer to be cheerful about, and one could legitimately level a ‘misery-porn’ argument against the film. But Barnard’s hypnotic, beautifully crafted picture avoids revelling in the grim shades of which its story is painted but instead urges the viewer to find glimmers of hope among the wastelands of broken lives. It’s powerful, effective and quietly heartbreaking.

A note on the disc: Unfortunately there were no Blu-ray copies available to review (though the film has been released in the HD format), so the comments here are based on the DVD. As it happens, the transfer is near-flawless and the sound excellent. Of course, it’s hampered by the restrictions of the DVD format but does as well as the standard definition picture will allow. The film was reportedly shot digitally on the Arri Alexa and the image is beautifully clear. A superb release.

The Selfish Giant (2013), directed by Clio Barnard, is released on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK by Artificial Eye. 

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