AFI Fest 2013
By Don Simpson | December 20, 2013
Director: Clio Barnard
Writer: Clio Barnard
Starring: Conner Chapman, Shaun Thomas, Ralph Ineson, Ian Burfield, Everal Walsh, Sean Gilder, Lorraine Ashbourne, Elliott Tittensor, Rebecca Manley, John Wall, Mohammed Ali, Jamie Michie, Steve Evets, Siobhan Finneran, Reece Andrews
Borrowing her film’s title from Oscar Wilde children’s fable, writer-director Clio Barnard utilizes the fantastic milieu of a landscape that is perpetually shrouded in the misty grayness of a fairytale to convey the brutally grim reality of this story. Barnard sheds the religious subtext of Wilde’s story, trading it for a scathing socio-economic commentary. Considering that the majority of this film’s audience might not be familiar with the downtrodden livelihoods in the West Yorkshire city of Bradford, a lot of the story’s key elements could feel more like magic realism than neo-realism; so Barnard uses the social realism techniques of Ken Loach and Alan Clarke to ensure that the audience comprehends the true levels of authenticity within this story. (Barnard based the two protagonists on two scrappers she had befriended in Bradford while making The Arbor and cast the protagonists with nonprofessional actors recruited from Bradford’s council estates.)
Economic and familiar circumstances have left teenagers Arbor (Conner Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas) to their own devices. While older generations have been hardened by life on this council estate, teens like Arbor and Swifty are more effected by the harsh lifestyle. Like most families on this council estate, Arbor and Swifty’s parents are unemployed, so their families are barely getting by. After we witness Swifty’s mother (Siobhan Finneran) serving rationed portions of baked beans to each of her eight children, while Swifty’s dad (Steve Evets) sells their rented sofa to a neighbor, we understand just how horrible life in Bradford can be. Whereas the Capitalist soul of industrialism once ruled over towns such as Bradford, the economically abandoned town is now drained of any semblance of hope.
Kicked out of school and sick of their dysfunctional families, Arbor and Swifty take it upon themselves to find ways to make money. They stumble upon a gig collecting scrap metal and copper cable for Kitten (Sean Gilder), seemingly the only person in Bradford who has figured out how to make a living wage in this rapidly deteriorating post industrial town. The scrapyard embodies exactly what happens when an industrial society goes kaput, the only purpose of the remnants of the economic decay is to be melted down and shipped off to newly industrialized areas like China. Everything is potentially worth something, perpetuating a selfish economy in which people scavenge and steal whatever they can get their hands on.
Like pubescent ghosts of a long-forgotten era, Arbor and Swifty roam Bradford in a horse and cart, rummaging through discarded metal, ironically paying off their parents’ debts by repurposing the now useless junk that their parents’ generation left to waste. Arbor tries to graduate to the big leagues of scrapping by thieving yet-to-be-installed copper wire from railroad yards and utility trucks, but the biggest score would be to dismantle a live power line. All the while, Swifty gravitates towards taking care of a horse, Diesel, which Kitten enters into woefully inhumane “sulky” races — an illegal and dangerous sport of riding two-wheeled horse carts down empty motorways at dawn — producing one of the most harrowing cinematic moments that I have experienced in 2013.
The ADHD medicine that Arbor must take to control his violent temper tantrums and the boys’ suspension/expulsion from school signify the lazy adult desire to superficially treat — or altogether forget about — the problems of troubled children and teens. Kitten becomes the only adult who cares about Arbor and Swifty, functioning as their surrogate guardian while simultaneously exploiting their financial naiveté. Kitten is soon revealed to be the titular selfish giant who personifies the Capitalist greed that is leftover from Britain’s Thatcher years. Barnard curiously also retains the stigmata-riddled child from Wilde’s source text, utilizing that character not to usher in the Garden of Eden as Wilde does but rather allowing them to be sacrificed to stop the horrendous greed of the underground economy.
Barnard compliments her biting socio-economic commentary, with a visual juxtaposition of the tranquility of pre-industrial environments with the gritty aftermath of failed industrialization. Natural elements are portrayed with transcendent lyricism, while manmade creations are riddled with disarming malaise. Cement cooling towers and electrical transmission towers loom monstrously over the pastoral green fields, just as graceful horses race alongside ugly motorized vehicles filled with hideously immoral human beings. There is some goodness left in this world after all, so not all hope is lost; but how many youths are going to have to be martyred before things really begin to improve?