It’s Grim Up North, isn’t it? So terribly, terribly GRIM! Look – it never stops raining, and everyone swears at each other, and the working class kids are thieves and drug addicts living in absolute squalor – in this National Lottery funded “social realist” drama riddled with stereotypes.
Relating the story of how two young friends end up becoming embroiled in the scrap business, scrapping and thieving to make a few bob, The Selfish Giant simply hammers home again and again how awful everything is. The two friends find themselves working with a scrap merchant and whilst one of them is only keen on making money, the other starts to form an attachment to the merchant’s horse. As the story moves forwards, a conflict between the two friends develops, leading to an inevitable tragedy. The two young actors are terrific, but the overall narrative and the implications of it are – like many of the objects they pick up in the film – scrapworthy.
Powerful performances by the two young leads can’t mask The Selfish Giant for what it is – a middle class misery fest that simply wants to tell you how GRIM IT IS UP NORTH AND BEING WORKING CLASS, and which really couldn’t do any more to casually reinforce negative images of impoverished people, no matter how hard it tried. For the first twenty minutes, pretty much everyone swears at each other as we are shown how utterly bleak life is; the men are bullying thugs and brutes, the kids are tearaways and drug addicts, whilst the women cower helplessly behind half-opened doors and broken windows. The Selfish Giant – which has little to do with the Oscar Wilde short story of the same name- is the type of film that certain segments of the industry simply loooooves, darling. It’s the renaissance of the British Film Industry. The next Ken Loach, the new “Kes”.
No, it isn’t. It is a horrendously patronising and stereotyping film that absolutely no one except folk inside the M25 will want to see (Note the additional irony that most of the reviewers/PR people declaring this a “social realist film” have probably never lived outside of London), and will (good grief, hopefully) certainly not play out to international audiences. The combination of British, working class and social realism did not need another entry with “grim” and “stereotypes” as qualifiers. There are other options – take a look at Paul Abbott’s first series of “Shameless.”
Visually quite beautiful, and with an excellent eye for detail, The Selfish Giant is nevertheless the kind of film that the southern middle classes like to have made about the northern working classes for reasons that remain an absolute mystery to me. Since when did the working classes migrate from salt of the earth to scum of the earth in the general perception, and why does a film like The Selfish Giant feel the need to reinforce that? Lacking any message, idea or analysis of why things are so grim up north (And are they, really? Really, though? And if they are – why make a film about it? How much National Lottery money was spent reinforcing the worst possible images of impoverished folk? If things are that bad, would the money not have been better spent actually doing something about it? Where’s the social/political/economic critique putting all of this in some kind of context?), The Selfish Giant opts to then tell a “heartbreaking story”, which is in essence a vacuous melodrama.
The Selfish Giant is not remotely, as some have claimed, a “blistering attack on austerity” – the context is never once placed. Instead, it will simply confirm every negative image that people have of “the poor,” serving only to further demonize them. If this had been a film about a different marginalized section of British society, there would be uproar.
Meanwhile, the idea that social realism has to be grim and therefore about Northerners who apparently have nothing better to do than steal, swear, break windows, take drugs, breed and be horrible to each other is something the British Film Industry needs to knock on the head immediately. It isn’t doing a service to anybody or anything by sticking to such a narrowly defined category of “worthy” films – least of all the genre of social realism.
This review originally published on the 13th October as coverage of the London Film Festival 2013.
Dave is the Editor of TLFR and a freelance writer. As well as a guest on BBC radio and regular appearances on the television show Reel Review, he has written for The Guardian, We Got This Covered, the International Political Forum and more.