The Selfish Giant ***1/2 (out of five)
It’s always something special when a director finds, and gets a brilliant performance out of, an exciting and natural child actor, and that specialness can become magic when a director finds two such kids who can effortlessly play off each other. Such is the overwhelming attribute of Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant. Arbor and Swifty, two lads from somewhere in the grey, moist, downtrodden north of England, have a relationship that echoes George and Lennie from Of Mice and Men and, perhaps even more so, Ratso and Buck from Midnight Cowboy; best mates mainly by both being otherwise outcasts, Arbor is small and explosive, quick with an idea but also to lose his temper, while Swifty is large, strong, and slow, with an almost mystical knack with horses. When Arbor gets kicked out of school, they embark on an adventure – to become scrap metal merchants – despite being only thirteen.
For me at least, the milieu is as exotic as Copacabana, and the sense of place – the damp, the arresting juxtaposition of a simultaneous rural and industrial landscape, the faces – is exquisite. There is a plot (adapted from Oscar Wilde’s famous short story of the same name), and it’s a good one, but the atmosphere, characters, and tone are more important. And most important of all are Arbor and Swifty, played to pure perfection by little Connor Chapman and big Shaun Thomas; these amazing young thespians do indeed bring the magic.