After a fungal infection wipes out most of humanity, a group of survivors hope to find a cure by studying infected hybrid children.
With AMC’s immensely popular The Walking Dead going into its seventh season this month, the disappointing World War Z adaptation slated for a sequel next year, and a slew of other groaners on the horizon, it’s safe to say that the undead are not going anywhere anytime soon. Even as a fan of the zombie genre, its current state of oversaturation is becoming tedious – like its subject matter, the genre is often ambling, stale, and in dire need of brains. So it’s always pleasant to find a film which injects a little bit of life into the material, and The Girl with All the Gifts was a gift to behold.
Based on the novel of the same name by M.R. Carey (who also wrote the screenplay), The Girl with All the Gifts is directed by Colm McCarthy, best known for his work on Peaky Blinders. We open on a young girl called Melanie (Sennia Nanua) who lives in a small cell in a remote military compound, is fed grubs, and is taken to class in heavy restraints, at gunpoint, by guards who treat her and the other children with hostility and disgust. It’s a shocking and unsettling environment to be thrown into without warning, and the film makes the clever decision to drip-feed us information about the world they live in so that we can come to the terrible realisation for ourselves. When we get our first glimpse of the zombies (nicknamed ‘Hungries’) gathered in their thousands beyond the creaking fences of the compound, we don’t have much time at all to acclimatise to the situation before they’re tearing across the screen – and into the soldiers.
Their base breached, low on supplies, and unable to contact higher command, a small band of survivors (Melanie amongst them) head into infested London to find food. Leading the group is Sergeant Parks (Paddy Considine, Hot Fuzz), a hardened soldier whom Melanie deeply dislikes, alongside the kinder Private Gallagher (Fisayo Akinade), and cold and determined scientist Dr Caldwell (Glenn Close, Fatal Attraction). Caldwell believes she is close to discovering a cure after studying hybrid children like Melanie – they are infected with the same fungus which has turned the rest of the population into ravenous flesh-eaters, but are able to retain cognitive abilities and seem capable of emotion. Caldwell treats Melanie like a lab rat, and a dangerous one at that, unlike sympathetic teacher Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton, Byzantium). But as the group creeps breathlessly through streets swarming with Hungries, their dynamics begin to shift, and soon they struggle to see the chatty, inquisitive and polite girl as a monster after all.
Like the best modern zombie films, The Girl with All the Gifts uses the apocalypse as a suitably bleak backdrop upon which to play out an affecting story about morality and what constitutes humanity. The motivations of our characters feel very real and believable – even Caldwell, our ostensible villain, is doing what she believes to be the right thing in a cruel and unforgiving environment. This is helped by a fantastic cast, with Considine the stand out as the initially nasty but rapidly more emotional and even lovable Parks. Arterton’s Justineau can feel a little naïve and sheltered in places but ultimately works well as a compliment to the more steely characters, while Nanau gives a startlingly vibrant performance, keeping the fiercely intelligent Melanie likeable despite an unsettling uncanny edge.
The desolate city, its debris-littered streets in the process of being reclaimed by nature, is reminiscent of survival horror game The Last of Us (which also featured fungal zombies), but still manages to feel quietly British without feeling the need to shoehorn notable landmarks into every frame. While there is enough gore to satiate hungry fans, the overall tone is understated and quiet, complimented by a beautifully eerie score by Chistobal Tapia de Veer.
It might not be ground-breaking, but The Girl with All the Gifts is an intriguing little addition to the genre, driven by a strong cast and haunting soundscape. The ending is a tad rushed, but it does not detract much from a film which is moving, unsettling, and morally probing in equal measures. See this gift in theatres for the superb score alone.
Words: Samantha McLaren (@themeatispeople)