Review: The Girl with All The Gifts

Part-28 Days Later, part-The Last of Us (a video game, for those not in the know, that is very similar), The Girl with All The Gifts is a curious, different entry in British horror cinema, asking more questions and probing other corners of survival and post-apocalyptic horror than most. Some good acting and the film’s central quirk make it a good watch, though aspects hold it back from perfection.

Melanie (Sennia Nannua) is an otherwise normal girl imprisoned in a UK army base after a viral fungus (the very real Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, which takes over animals’ brains, but is harmless to humans so far) turned people into zombies, or ‘hungries’. Melanie and other children like her appear human, but are infected, and will try to bite others if not restrained. Melanie’s daughter-like relationship with teacher Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton) is interrupted by an attack, and as part of a ragtag group with distrustful base commander Sergeant Parks (Paddy Considine) and cold scientist Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close), Melanie is forced into what’s left of the real world, the others dealing with conflicted feelings towards her.

The story is a real combination of the film and game I spoke about earlier – UK-based with a realistic sheen, and a reflection of a grubby, post-epidemic and abandoned world, it nails the quiet and creepy, infection-based horror of the game too. Director Colm McCarthy and screenwriter M.R. Carey (adapting his own novel) throw you into a position of doubt when it comes to Melanie, and I really liked that – once you know what she is and what she does, there’s always an edge to every action, and it’s rare a protagonist is so dangerous to other characters. This duality is built on by the great performance of young Sennia Nannua, excellent as a love-starved, innocent and inquisitive young child; but equally as good as the rabid, dangerous infected.

Setting and filming the movie in the UK also adds to that 28 Days Later realistic sheen, with towns of the West Country (and randomly, some of Chernobyl) impressively standing in for a ruined, eerie London (Steven Spielberg’s currently shooting another dystopian movie in Birmingham, so there must be something charmingly run-down about the region at the moment). I also enjoyed where the story went, with a very different resolution to what I was expecting pulling the proverbial rug out from under me. Coming back to that idea of duality, each of the characters has a justifiable reason for doing what they do, and you don’t lose sight of that all the way through, which is more development than your average zombie-fest.nhgnqq5aefnwvvr726c8fg-650-80

I mentioned Nannua’s brilliant performance, but Arterton’s sympathetic teacher is another, the actress embodying her character’s struggle to be the surrogate mother Melanie never had, whatever the risks. Glenn Close brings a little Hollywood class, her seemingly amoral doctor pulling you both ways when it comes to her motivation to find a cure, and her desperation allowing the actress to get her teeth into an complex role (no pun intended). Paddy Considine is equally great as one of the only two main male characters, with his gruff Parks hiding layers of complexity, particularly in his views on the kids like Melanie, and his confusion as he adjusts to accepting how human she might be. Lastly, Fisayo Akinade is interesting if forgettable as the other male member of the ragtag group, who only really serves as a less cold contrast to Parks’ rough bastard.

One major thing I had against the film is the music, which was obviously supposed to be haunting, eerie, what-have-you. Instead, composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer undoes all the quieter, more sensitive work threaded throughout by foregrounding a godawful, wailing theme that was almost laughably bad. I get he was trying to tie in the idea of an innocent child in a horrific world, but the music just comes off as trite and annoying.There are hotspots of gore and violence, though perhaps not as much as you might expect, and some jumpy scenes, but this could almost be a teen-level frightener, so don’t be put off by it involving zombies (unless you love cats…). In turn, the colour-drained look from cinematographer Simon Dennis gives everything a sickly feel, dominated by khakis, deathly yellows and a gloomy darkness that emulates the stark horror and illness of the world left behind.

The story appears to have stuck quite closely to the book (from what I’ve read), and the film’s decision not to give too much detail about the world beyond what’s caused the epidemic is good, because it forces the viewer to watch and try to fill in the gaps. I also liked the idea of scenes where Melanie adjusts to what the world used to be, having never seen it before – the older characters are wistful about what once was, while she just views everything as a young child might viewing it for the first time.

All told, I enjoyed the film, which is a great example of a well-made British horror with brains (no pun intended, again). If it weren’t for the music, and perhaps if it were a little more developed  (we learn very little of Justineau or Caldwell’s life before, Parks’ past is revealed when the film demands it, and Gallagher is almost a bit-part), then I would rate it even higher. As it is, it’s still a very good, quite ponderous movie – an antidote to your typical zombie horror.

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