Director: Colm McCarthy
Stars: Gemma Arterton, Sennia Nanua, Glenn Close
As one would imagine also applies to Mike Carey’s novel (admission; I’ve not read it), the best way to approach The Girl With All The Gifts is with as little foreknowledge as possible, making the job of reviewing the thing that much trickier. The reason for this is the way the narrative is structured rather like matryoshka in reverse; each development reveals a larger environment from which to consider the story, until what began in a micro-climate becomes a global concern.
The story begins in some sort of facility. Carey’s screenplay asks us to ask questions. Who is this young girl named Melanie (Sennia Nanua) who seems to be one-part school pupil, two-parts prisoner? Why is she protected / supervised by armed military personnel? What’s the deal with all the other children, and their teacher, the earnest Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton)? It feels similar to the conditions seen earlier this year in Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Evolution. Certainly there are medical tests going on, as implied by the presence of Glenn Close’s studious Dr. Caroline Caldwell.
Unlike Hadzihalilovic’s film, however, The Girl With All The Gifts is willing to give us it’s answers directly, albeit in a piecemeal fashion. There has been a mass outbreak of a fungal infection quite similar to the one seen in revolutionary console game The Last Of Us. Melanie and her classmates are half-breeds; test subjects in the pursuit of a vaccine. But these best laid plans are upended when the base the facility resides beneath is overrun by the infected (jarringly nicknamed ‘the hungries’), who display a zombie-like appetite for human blood.
So what begins as a prison movie evolves into a road movie and will evolve again. Colm McCarthy’s film is one of the most assured, most accomplished pieces of ‘zombie’ genre filmmaking to have appeared in years, recalling 28 Days Later in terms of structure, but not content. It will be a lot of people’s favourite film of the year, especially here in the UK where convincingly filmed horror and sci-fi entertainment is marked by its scarcity. The tea-and-biscuits twee sensibilities of Dr Who are nowhere in evidence here.
The cast sell this as much as the big ideas in the story. Arterton has spoken recently of her concerted efforts to break down the conventions of leading women, and her Jusinteau makes for an excellent demonstration of talk being put into practice. But there is no one lead in The Girl With All The Gifts. Arterton takes centre stage in act one, but the narrative sees her take a back step in favour of some of the other players as things progress.
The one constant is Nanua as Melanie; an incredible find for McCarthy, who anchors the film as the half-breed of gargantuan import to human survival suggested by the title. She walks a tightrope between endearingly polite apt pupil and ruthless monster, never fully letting the audience settle on which will prevail as the story mutates around her. The relationship between Melanie and Justineau is the film’s core, even when other factors eclipse it in terms of immediacy and the whole thing feels to an extent like an incredibly warped lullaby for adoptive love.
The three women shape the film, they drive it. Paddy Considine’s pragmatic soldier Sgt. Eddie Parks may think he’s in command, but he has some learning to do. ‘Evolution’ might even have proved a better, more on-point title for The Girl With All The Gifts than it was for Hadzihalilovic as everyone involved here must learn to adapt to radically changing circumstances.
The production design, delicately judged effects work and distinctive score (this last by Cristobal Tapia de Veer who soundtracked Channel 4’s ill-fated gem Utopia) back up the talented cast. When the film finds urban locations, the sight of streets and buildings being reclaimed by nature is an aesthetically appealing one. McCarthy’s is a slow, verdant apocalypse. We’ve seen it in video games before, or in AMC’s The Walking Dead as another example, but rarely to such atmospheric benefit.
When McCarthy reveals for us the hoards of ‘hungries’ standing half-comatose in shopping malls, it unsurprisingly generates memories of Dawn Of The Dead and Romero’s commentary on brainless consumerism. McCarthy’s film takes this a step further by making lethal enemies out of the young. Bare with me as I may be about to go out on a limb, but… once you reach a certain age, the increasing uniformity of the generation of youngsters growing up in your wake can seem disarming.
The assumption is – and I’m guilty of this – that they’re all listening to the same music, streaming it into their ears between the same adverts, all shop at the same places, all think the same things, share the same memes. It feels almost as if the media and particularly social media’s imbedding systems have created a homogenous race to replace us, one without subcultures. Where are the new movements outside of branded conformity? The Girl With All The Gifts takes these anxieties and contorts them into horror fiction for us to revel in. Take a look around you next time you’re in a crowded precinct, particularly where the young are in high numbers. Do the people plugged into media devices outnumber those that aren’t? Carey and McCarthy’s infected don’t just endlessly consume; they stand stock still if deprived of stimuli, functionless without it. These are the 21st century’s ‘zombies’, and they’re no less frightening.