Director: Colm McCarthy Starring: Gemma Arterton, Paddy Considine, Glenn Close, and Sennia Nanua Run Time: 111mins
In a time when zombie stories feel like they’ve been done to death on both the large and small screen, one can’t help but wonder if the genre has anything fresh or compelling left to offer. As it turns out, it has; The Girl With All the Gifts is perhaps the best zombie related movie since 28 Days Later reinvented the genre back in 2002. And although it owes a large debt to that film’s setting, general aesthetic, and “rage fueled” undead, it manages to inject plenty of new life and ideas into the mix.
We open with an unusual scenario. A pleasant young girl locked in a dark cell goes about her morning routine. She dons an orange tracksuit and dutifully straps herself into the leg restraints on the wheelchair by her bed. Guards clad in camouflage-gear enter the cell. She greets them. They nervously point their rifles at her and proceed to fasten the remaining arm and head restraints. We then follow the girl as she is wheeled through this prison-like facility to a room filled with rows of children, all restrained in wheelchairs and wearing the same orange tracksuits. A teacher arrives and class begins.
Why are these kids being held captive? What is the purpose of this routine? The fact that we are kept in the dark for most of this first act is much to the films credit. It builds suspense and intrigue, and results in what are perhaps some of the movie’s best scenes.
After this fascinating and original opening the story veers into more well-worn territory. It’s almost a pity we couldn’t have spent longer in this setting, but the film still manages to offer plenty of unique touches along the way. This is the kind of storyline a show like The Walking Dead should be taking the time to explore.
Based on the book of the same name, The Girl With All The Gifts is in ways closer to dystopian science fiction than an outright zombie film. Frequent 2000AD and X-Men comic book writer Mike Carey uses the backdrop of this post apocalyptic world as a canvas to explore themes of humanity, nature, and evolution. The story works in shades of grey, with none of the characters being painted as particularly “good” or expressly “evil”. It is entirely possible to root for or against many of the characters who inhabit this world, depending on your ethical point of view.
Being an independent British production the film was produced on a pretty limited budget, but director Colm McCarthy works wonders with what he has, providing a sense of scope and scale as large as any big budget film. His direction, while perhaps not particularly remarkable from a stylistic point of view, is confident and economical. And although the undead themselves can’t help but look a little underwhelming when compared to the highly inventive effects/make-up work on the likes of The Walking Dead, what the film achieves with landscapes and scenery is remarkable and extremely effective.
Performances by and large are pretty good. Newcomer Sennia Nanua does an extremely admirable job as the title character Melanie, bringing a creepy charm to her role. She clearly has a lot of potential and excels in many scenes. There are times however when her performance can’t help but feel a little underwhelming, and even forced-when she is required to embrace the more feral side of her character for example. Gemma Arterton is likable as Melanie’s guardian/mother figure, Paddy Considine is solid as a no nonsense army officer who just wants to keep everyone alive, and Glenn Close provides layers and quiet nuance to a character that could have come across as extremely rote and villainous on paper.
The music is definite highlight, and deserves special mention. Composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer recaptures the weird and atmospheric electronic sounds of his haunting score from C4’s Utopia to great effect. As was the case in that show his score here could almost be regarded as a character in and of itself.
Despite featuring a relatively standard middle act, complete with all the prerequisite zombie tropes, the film manages to find a few surprisingly effective moments of dark humour in its back half, and builds to quite a satisfying and unpredictable climax. Without getting too far into spoiler territory there is perhaps a little more that could have been explored regarding the mental state of the children and the true nature of their infection, and a certain character meets a disappointingly clichéd end. But these are minor quibbles.
Overall, while The Girl With All The Gifts may not be as intense or gory as some of its peers, it is a welcome and much needed fresh take on the genre. One that is thoughtful, compelling and inventive in equal measure. It should please newcomers and jaded fans alike.