The Selfish Giant. Dir. Clio Barnard. IFC Films. 2013.

Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant[1] (2013)follows the story of thirteen year old best friends Arbor and Swifty in a modern adaption of Oscar Wilde’s story of the same name. Once they are excluded from school the boys start collecting scrap for Kitten, the owner of the local scrapyard; although his name might suggest geniality, he is anything but, as he exploits Swifty and Arbor’s eagerness to earn money. Kitten enters his horse into amateur trotting races, in which the horses race along public roads whilst pulling carts or ‘sulkies’. After witnessing Swifty’s natural talent with horses, Kitten allows him to work with his horse and gives him the opportunity to race. However, the film descends into tragedy as the two friends take on the extremely dangerous job of stealing a high voltage transmission wire, and Swifty is electrocuted and killed in the process. The film then concludes with Arbor taking care of the horse Swifty adored, which allows Arbor to remain connected to Swifty by echoing this affection for horses.

Although loosely based on Wilde’s fictional fairy-tale, the film’s narrative is inspired by true events. When Barnard was researching her multi-award winning 2010 film, The Arbor, she came across 14 year old Matty, a volatile yet charming young boy who had been scrapping from the age of 11. Matty had a best friend, and this friendship was what built the characters of Arbor and Swifty. Matty kept his horse, which he used to pull a cart for scrap, in a makeshift stable in his Mum’s council house, and it is Matty’s story that formed the narrative core of The Selfish Giant[2].        

The Selfish Giant fits neatly into the genre of social realism, focusing upon the socially marginal, specifically children from a working class background. Barnard enables viewers to see the film through a child’s eyes, showing that the kind of social problems that are present within an adult’s world also affect children. Like most British social realist texts, The Selfish Giant concerns the working class. The film is able to critique the environment of this demographic through the representation of horses and, in particular, human-animal relationships.      

Charles Murray uses the term ‘underclass’ to describe a section of the working class ‘who chronically live off mainstream society without participating in it’[3], whilst Paul Dave offers a more liberal view, accrediting the blame to society as opposed to the underclass[4]. Social realism focuses on characters inextricably linked to environment[5], and Barnard works with space and place to demonstrate how environment shapes identity. Dave’s view is therefore more appropriate to apply to the film which accredits the blame to the environment, suggesting it is largely deterministic of character’s fate. Horses are presented as part of the environment, yet they arguably provide Arbor and Swifty with a means of escape from it in an attempt to avoid their fate.                                                                                                                                                                        

This escape is provided through money; the horses in the film are arguably presented as commodities, becoming more valuable with the more races they win. These horses also generate money through bets that are placed on the trotting races which take place along empty motorways.  One of the most energetic scenes shows Kitten’s horse Diesel competing in one of these races. This scene is completely saturated with diegetic sounds of horses’ hooves, car engines, beeping horns and shouting, calling attention to the action through a clear contrast to the recurrent long periods of silence in the film. This scene also contains frequent short cuts and uses an unsteady camera, contrasting with the more typical elongated and stable shots in the film to amplify excitement and danger. The excitement arises from the opportunity to win money through betting, placing horses and money within the same spectrum. This idea is magnified after the race when the scene cuts to a door knocker adorned with a horse’s head. As a gratuitous item, the knocker embodies capitalist society, strengthening the idea that horses are part of a culture which highly values possession. As the race continues, Swifty is the only one who regards the horses’ welfare as the cars get uncomfortably close: “he can’t see the car; he’s got his blinkers on”. Swifty worries that Diesel will get hurt, seeing the race as more dangerous than exciting, and so regards horses primarily as sentient creatures with their own needs, and not commodities.                                                                                                                

                                                                                                        Kitten’s horse competing in the trotting race

Swifty’s recognition of horses as sentient animals enables Barnard to critique the stereotypical emotional relationship between animals and women within film through his affection for horses. Samantha Lay suggests ‘British social realist films have traditionally centred on male working class characters often set in opposition to women in general’[6]. In The Selfish Giant, when Swifty is shown to possess stereotypical female characteristics, Arbor considers this negative. Softness is generally considered a female trait, so when Arbor tells Swifty: “All you’re bothered about is horses, you’re soft. You need to harden up”, it is implied that he considers it negative, wanting Swifty to deviate from this female quality. However, Swifty remains ‘soft’, maintaining his affection for horses after Arbor tells him to ‘harden up’.  It is usually women that are shown to have an emotional connection with an animal (especially within cinema), and so Barnard uses Swifty’s character to subvert expectations of human-animal relationships, calling attention to the cinematic construction of them.                                                                                                                                                   

Viewers see this ‘soft side’ to Swifty throughout, but it is perhaps most prominent when he discovers the foal has been electrocuted and killed by an exposed wire. In this scene, Shaun (who plays Swifty) asked Clio is she wanted him to cry, and he was able to do so in all five takes by drawing on his experiences of seeing horses badly treated[7]. Shaun’s strong affection for horses in real life reveals that placing women and animals together on an emotional level is indeed a cinematic construction. As Shaun cries, he is no longer acting as he is truly emotionally affected by these issues in the same way Swifty’s character is. Shaun’s actions therefore represent reality; but because this emotional response also reflects Swifty’s reaction, the boundaries between reality and fabricated narrative are blurred, presenting an authentic realism in keeping with the genre.                                

The relationship between Swifty and horses is also shown through the cinematography. A close up of the horse’s eye is shown in focus, whilst Swifty sits on the horse, and is out of focus;  the focus then switches to Swifty, and then back to the eye. Shallow focus and depth of field allow the focus to shift between man and animal, representing a harmony between the two and suggesting that Swifty sees the horse as his equal, deconstructing the hierarchy which places humans in a superior position to animals.    

The animal eye is then shown again as the film’s final shot, becoming a potent, fetishised symbol as the camera lingers upon a close up of Diesel’s eye before the film cuts to black. Although realist films aim to present an authentic portrayal of reality, the eye alludes to the film’s construction by simulating the camera lens. The look of the eye is captured through the look of the lens, uniting the gaze through a reduced proximity, and therefore breaks the illusion of reality by calling attention to the camera. Moments in which the emotional response of the actor replicates that of Swifty enable the realism to take a strong stance, but it is moments like this when the fabrication of the film is allowed to seep through.  

Lay suggests that ‘social realist texts resist resolutions and the future is rarely bright’[8]. Swifty’s shocking and sudden death certainly does not allow for a bright future. However, the film does provide resolution to a certain extent, when Arbor cares for Diesel in the final scene, the horse Swifty dearly loved. Arbor previously saw horses merely as a means to make money, interested in their worth as commodities and not as conscious creatures. Thus, as Arbor mimics the affection Swifty showed for Diesel, this brings the protagonists together through animals, because although Swifty is not physically present, Arbor feels connected to him by replicating this affection for animals, bringing out his ‘softer’ side which Swifty so often embodied.                                                               

Throughout The Selfish Giant horses are symbolic of Swifty and Arbor. In one scene three horses follow one another as the camera pans right to left, as opposed to the more conventional method of panning from to left right. This is suggestive of regression, emphasising the idea that the characters can never move forward in their environment.  Producer of the film Tracy O’Riordan talks of horses being particular to Bradford and suggests they are part of the landscape. She says how horses have become a hot political issue in the area, and those that are tethered on public land are sometimes impounded by the council, and the price for their return can be around £3000, so many cannot afford to reclaim them[9].  The Selfish Giant portrays the way in which horses are connected to the Bradford landscape, showing a foal and its mother both tied to a pylon, to represent the interconnection between nature and urbanisation. These horses should be free to roam, and yet they are literally held back by the urban elements of the environment. Swifty and Arbor are also held back by their environment; unable to escape the restrictive institutional forces of the home and school, and once out of these institutions they enter into another: the scrap yard.  

                                                                                            Horses as part of the Bradford landscape

Arbor is presented as an aspirant individual within a society that attempts to hold him in place; it is through money he attempts to escape his environment, and horses are the means by which he obtains it. Many of the residents in Bradford perceive horses as a way to make money, but this is notably represented through Arbor who asks questions such as: “How do you make money from a race?” and “How much is Diesel worth?” Arbor borrows one of Kitten’s horses to pull the cart used to collect scrap, and so the horse is the financial catalyst, acting as the literal transportation of goods. Swifty is also held in this environment, particularly due to his family’s financial problems. Both protagonists are provided with an escape through horses. Barnard evidently alludes to Vittoria de Sica’s Shoeshine[10], in which horses are also the means of escape for Giuseppe and Pasquale, two young boys within an impoverished environment, seeing horses as their only liberation. In The Selfish Giant however, Arbor sees horses as a means to an end (the end being money); whereas Swifty feels most liberated when he engages with horses by riding and caring for them, seeing this at the end itself.  Kitten gives Swifty the chance to race Diesel once he realises his talent; although Swifty never gets to compete when he is tragically killed. This strengthens the bleak reality of social realist films, implying that there is no means of escape from the environment into which you are born.                                                                                                                                                                                                  

The Selfish Giant is undoubtedly reminiscent of Loach’s Kes[11] (1969) and more recently Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank[12] (2009), both of which sit within the genre of social realism, and use animals in order to create an escape from an impoverished environment.  In Fish Tank, Mia is unable to free the horse that later dies, while Kes concludes with the death of the kestrel. Both of these animals symbolise freedom, and it is through their death that the opportunity to escape the socio-cultural restraints of their environment is extinguished. The Selfish Giant expands upon this, not only extinguishing the animal which is symbolic of freedom (the foal that is killed by a high voltage wire), but also using Swifty’s death to suggest that it is not possible to break free from a working class environment without a tragic result. 


[1] The Selfish Giant. Dir. Clio Barnard. IFC Films, 2013. 

[2] Artificial Eye, ‘The Selfish Giant: A film by Clio Barnard’, Artificial Eye (2013)

<>[accessed 20th November 2014] (p.2)

[3] Charles Murray, ‘The British Underclass’, Public Source, 90 (1990) <> [accessed 18th November 2014] (p.5).

[4] Christopher Wells, ‘Wastelands or Playgrounds? The Representation of Space, Place and Childhood in Contemporary British Social Realist Cinema’ (unpublished M.Res thesis, Northumbria University, 2012) 

[6] Samantha Lay, British Social Realism: From documentary to Brit Grit (London: Wallflower Press, 2002) p. 18

[7]Artificial Eye, ‘The Selfish Giant: A film by Clio Barnard’, Artificial Eye (2013)

<>[accessed 20th November 2014] (p.4)

[8] Lay, British Social Realism: From documentary to Brit Grit, p.21

[9] Artificial Eye, ‘The Selfish Giant: A film by Clio Barnard’, pp.6-7

[10] Shoeshine. Dir. Victtorio de Sica. Lopert Pictures Corporation, 1946.

[11] Kes. Dir. Ken Loach. United Artists, 1969.

[12] Fish Tank. Andrea Arnold. BBC Films, 2009. 

Further reading

Oscar Wilde’s short story The Selfish Giant as inspiration behind the film:

The Selfish Giant as the film of the week from ‘Sight and Sound’ November 2013 issue:

Clio Barnard’s interview with The Observer: ‘Why I’m drawn to outsiders’


Artificial Eye, ‘The Selfish Giant: A film by Clio Barnard’, Artificial Eye (2013)

<> [accessed 20th November 2014

Fish Tank. Andrea Arnold. BBC Films, 2009.

Kes. Dir. Ken Loach. United Artists, 1969.

Lay, Samantha, British Social Realism: From documentary to Brit Grit (London: Wallflower Press, 2002)

Murray, Charles, ‘The British Underclass’, Public Source, 90.99 (1990) <> [accessed 18th November 2014] (p.5).

Shoeshine. Dir. Victtorio de Sica. Lopert Pictures Corporation, 1946.

The Selfish Giant. Dir. Clio Barnard. IFC Films, 2013. 

Wells, Christopher, ‘Wastelands or Playgrounds? The Representation of Space, Place and Childhood in Contemporary British Social Realist Cinema’ (unpublished M.Res thesis, Northumbria University, 2012)