It’s tough at the bottom – ★★★★
Clio Barnard arrived on the British film scene with a bang with the truly remarkable 2010 film The Arbor. The film was unlike anything I’d ever seen as it told the story of the life of playwright Andrea Dunbar, who died back in 1990 at the age of 29. It utilised something The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw dubbed “verbatim cinema” and used recorded audio interviews with Dunbar’s family and friends which actors then lip-synched along to. These same actors are then used to act out scenes in the housing estates where Dunbar grew up. Once you get over any fact/fiction trust issues it made for a barmy and brilliant viewing experience and sold me on the idea of this wonderfully new and compelling docu-drama style approach to a biopic.
Her follow-up The Selfish Giant is a more traditional piece of cinema but deals with many of the same issues of poverty and class as The Arbor. In this social realism tale we have two young Bradford boys who don’t fit in in school who think they’ve found a new calling in the scrap metal trade, borrowing a local scrap-yard owner’s horse and cart and setting off around the town’s estates to find scrap which they can cash in and help out their families. The two young boys in question are Conner Chapman as Arbor and Shaun Thomas as Swifty, both are tremendous first-time performers and Dunbar allowed an element of improvisation in order to reflect how Arbor and Swifty would act in similar real-world situations. Chapman in particular is brilliant and manages to elicit audience feelings of joy, sympathy and rage all in equal measure.
The film is very loosely based on the 1888 Oscar Wilde short story of the same name and despite a change in location and setting, the themes are pretty universal and similarities will really reveal themselves when you’ve seen the film. Chapman’s Arbor wants to help the ones he loves but suffers from ADHD and has a built-in tendency to cause havoc, a character trait which gets him into trouble on more than one occasion and eventually results in his permanent exclusion (or expulsion as it was in my day) from school.
The true tragedy of a film like this is the frustration at viewing the circle of poverty. You just know that Arbor and Swifty are born into horrible lives where their welfare is way down the list of priorities for their parents. When the scrap yard owner Kitten (Sean Gilder) starts to show an interest in the boys – the fact it’s for his own personal gain is irrelevant – they’re delighted as both lack any strong male figures in their lives. Whether you feel like British society is failing people from disadvantaged areas and encouraging a welfare state, the film doesn’t judge or chastise and instead just leaves you wishing these kids could be given a better start in life and paid a little bit more attention by those around them.
Where the film falls down a little is in the way in which the seed is sown for an inevitable dramatic turn and tragedy in the third act and you slowly start to see how the narrative is being structured to serve that need. Maybe it’s the optimist in me who thought that maybe, just maybe, we could see a story of two boys who break out of the doldrums of poverty and start an internet company or something.
The film was shot by Mike Eley and his cinematography makes life in the concrete estates of West Yorkshire look beautifully bleak. Even the grimy world of illegal scrap-metal dealing looks strangely enticing through his camera. Barnard wears her directorial influences on her sleeve with major debt to the social realism cinema of early Ken Loach and also calls to mind more recent work like Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank and the Dardenne brother’s 2011 film The Kid with a Bike.
Anyone worried The Arbor might have been a fluke can rest easy as she’s truly marked herself out as one of the finest new directors working today. If there’s any justice in the world Barnard and her film will clean up at the BAFTAs as she’s crafted one of the UK’s finest films for many years.
Released on limited release in Ireland on October 25th 2013
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