THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS
Directed by Colm McCarthy
As a warning, this review will contain mild spoilers. I’ll cover no specifics past act 1, but those that wish to go in blind are advised to scroll down to the star rating then close this page. In fact I’ll even tell you it now so you don’t see any key words: 4 stars. Very good/ almost great. Now go and don’t even watch the trailer since it ruins everything!
Still with me? Excellent. Adapted from the fantastic 2014 novel, by Mike Carey (also screenwriter), The Girl With All The Gifts is a post-apocalyptic story where humanity is reduced to a brain-dead horde. Once infected they stand still, waiting to go rabid at the first smell of flesh and blood (hence the nickname ‘hungries’). We begin on a military base where, for reasons initially unknown, some children appear to be relatively immune to this fungal born disease. Sure, they still get still strong cravings to bite people’s faces off and scratch away their skin (provided it’s not blocked by a special gel). Yet they’re also able to learn things. Most keen to do so is 10 year old whizz-kid Melanie (Nanua), whose particularly partial to ancient Greek stories, as told by favourite teacher miss Justineau (Arterton). Unfortunately she accidentally volunteers herself to be on the autopsy table of frosty doctor Caldwell (Close), who is formulating a vaccine. As she gets escorted there by Sgt Parks (Considine) we get a glimpse of a vast crowd of hungries pushing at the perimeter. Luckily for her they break in before the knife can drop. This prompts a brave escape that ends with Melanie getting hauled into a van with her favourite teacher, her least favourite doctor and the aforementioned sergeant with some privates. The rest of the film charts their hunt for safety through a derelict London.
Despite it being his debut, director Colm McCarthy shows the seasoned confidence of a veteran. When he needs to he can drum up fear and explode a good head, or ten, without making the violence seem cheap. The run-down capital provides an excellent backdrop for the action and through a few simple shots we see the staggering scale of its ruin. Yet what really drives the film is an intimate story of people trying to make it in increasingly desperate circumstances. Predictably the only light in the tunnel is Caldwell’s insistence that she’s very close to a cure, though to harness it she’s going to have to kill Melanie. The debate as to what should be done with this cute, but deadly, little girl may seem tropey, and ultimately it is. Although it’s played out well, since the movie never loses sight of a) the graveness of the situation and b) how dangerous the girl can be.
Throughout we see her chow down on people, and various pieces of wildlife, with great gusto. And even though the over-reliance on daylight scenes mean the journey never quite seems as epic as it should, the hunger she battles is well expressed. With only one acting credit before, Nanua establishes herself as one to watch. The rest of the cast do a commendable job, with Close and Considine showing themselves to be reliable and Arterton giving depth to Miss Justineau’s deep concern for Melanie. This fuels much of the last act, giving it an emotional power that transcends most other zombie movies I can think of (the also recently finished Train to Busan being an exception). I’d also like to give a special mention to the queasy, minimalist soundtrack that makes the scenes seem that much more haunting. Even if some of their contents will seem familiar, thanks to 28 Days Later.
If there’s one thing missing, it’s the novel’s key asset: an intrusive narrative that jumps into the heads of its characters. Save for a few scenes that capture Melanie’s childish wonder, in the face of dilapidation and her growing knowledge of what she is, this is not a perspective piece. Consequently, the band of survivors lack the idiosyncrasies which made them so interesting on the page. This means that, regardless of the cast’s best efforts, they often lapse into genre-archetypes. I know it isn’t fair to compare something to its source material, since different mediums bring with them their own vocabularies and constraints. Yet the strength of one only highlights a weakness in the other. Furthermore, an arc that leads to a fairly drastic measure before the end just isn’t very convincingly conveyed throughout – feeling like an ending to service the themes without being a logical conclusion to the plot. I hate to say it but, the movie’s quality notwithstanding, you’d be better reading the book. Though if you can’t be bothered, there’s still a lot to like here.