Crusading social realism may have long since ceased to be fashionable in Britain’s theatre and television drama, but in the cinema the flame stubbornly continues to burn. In recent years, these films have often come visually supercharged with a new painterly grandeur – a kind of Loach 2.0.
Directors like Amma Asante, Sally El Hosaini and Tina Gharavi have contributed to this continuing British movie tradition; Andrea Arnold has had sensational successes with her movies Red Road, Fish Tank and a brilliant and much-misunderstood version of Wuthering Heights. Now Clio Barnard has shown her own mastery of the form with an outstanding new film, a contemporary reworking of the story by Oscar Wilde. Having watched it again, the minor qualifications I had when I first saw it at Cannes earlier this year have been blowtorched away by its sheer passion – and by the two leading performances.
Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas play Arbor and Swifty, two lads who live in the tough estates of Bradford, leading an almost bucolic existence of hand-to-mouth survival. Arbor is small, aggressive, unhappy. His mate Swifty is slower and gentler and almost beatific, a natural target for bullies. Arbor gets in a fight defending Swifty in the playground, and the resulting chaos gets both boys excluded, a development they welcome so that they can pursue their true vocation: roaming around town scavenging and nicking metal objects so they can sell them for scrap. To do this, the children must take their swag to a dodgy dealer, inappropriately nicknamed Kitten, and played by Sean Gilder.
Just as Wilde’s giant lived in perennial winter in his walled garden, glowering Kitten rules over a grim scrapyard with high fences: a factory of ill-health and unsafety. He is also at the centre of an illegal and fantastically dangerous drag-racing scene on public roads with the horses and traps used for his work. A natural predator and exploiter, Kitten sees that sweet-natured Swifty has a talent for handling horses and could be a star rider for him: as for poor Arbor, his metier is the dangerous business of stealing cable from railway lines and electricity stations. Arbor and Swifty look like Laurel and Hardy. Kitten calls them Cheech and Chong.
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