VOD film review: The Girl with All the Gifts
Ivan Radford | On 11, Jun 2017
Director: Colm McCarthy
Cast: Sennia Nanua, Gemma Arterton, Glenn Close, Paddy Considine, Anamaria Marinca
Watch The Girl with All the Gifts online in the UK: Amazon Prime / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Google Play
Zombies. Why does it have to be zombies? It’s easy to approach any entry in the horror canon that features the familiar sight of the shuffling undead with a Harrison Ford-like weariness. Between The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead, zombies have been done to undeath in every way imaginable. Fortunately, The Girl with All the Gifts is a film with imagination to spare.
Based on Mike Carey’s novel, the apocalyptic thriller takes us into a near future where humans have been all but wiped out by a fungal disease that turns people into “Hungries” – because words like “walkers” and “infected” have already been taken. And so, when we meet Melanie (Sennia Nanua), a girl who is kept in a cell and strapped routinely to a wheelchair, we automatically assume the worse. But as the title suggests, there’s more ambiguity to the movie than that – Melanie is part of a group of kids who are all partly immune to the virus, which makes them a symbol of the future as well as fear.
Is she the saviour of humanity? Or a symptom of its inevitable downfall? The script, adapted by Carey himself, treads the line perfectly between the two possibilities, teetering between naivety and nastiness, heart and horror. The cast are impeccable at managing that balance. The always-brilliant Paddy Considine is phenomenal as a gruff soldier tasked with moving Melanie and a group of adults through the hostile environment. Glenn Close resists every chance to overplay her steely ruthlessness as the one using the immune children as the basis of a cure. And Gemma Arterton is the ideal foil for Close’s composed scientist, playing Melanie’s teacher, Miss Justineau, with an endearing earnestness.
Director Colm McCarthy conjures up some fantastically tense set pieces for this motley crew, moving them out from the confines of their military base without losing any of the first act’s claustrophobia. He crafts a backdrop somewhere between The Midwich Cuckoos and 28 Days Later, playing with tropes such as barren landmarks and eerie youngsters to make something that feels wonderfully fresh – the sight of the BT Tower covered in flora and fauna is breathtaking, while a slow step through a horde of Hungries, whose crucial sense of smell can be blocked by a scent-masking gel, is nailbitingly tense.
The suspense is partly because the Hungries are genuinely different to what we’re used to seeing, which, in itself, is an achievement. They’re decidedly creepy, with a drooling, teeth-gnashing tic that builds up the tension before they pounce on their victims and bite through their flesh. Carey’s screenplay, meanwhile, hints at a Lord of the Flies-style society emerging among some Hungries that adds to their unique, unnerving behaviour. (Throughout, music by Utopia’s composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer expertly heightens the atmosphere.)
But it’s newcomer Sennia Nanua who is the film’s secret weapon, coming across as sincerely human every step of the way. Until, that is, the virus takes over – and it’s testament to her friendly, bright persona (greeting the guards and her teacher with a smile each morning) that it surprises you every time. Melanie’s an enthusiastic learner, keen to absorb Greek myths and other lessons from Miss Justineau, something that fuels a bond of loyalty between them. There’s dependency too, which goes both ways, and Nanua’s performance is nuanced enough to draw out the complexities of Melanie’s shifting relationships with everyone else. Her character doesn’t become any clearer as the movie goes on, and it’s that depth and development that makes McCarthy’s small-scale chiller so engaging; the sight of her handcuffed and wearing a Hannibal Lector-esque mask, for example, is darkly funny, but also unavoidably sinister, wittily subverting our expectations while reminding us that Melanie really is dangerous. (“Would you like a cat?” asks Miss Justineau, at one point, after an impromptu feeding session. “No, thanks. I already had one.”)
The result is a smart, subtle exploration of evolution and survival, one that asks us to sympathise with the monster at its core, whether she’s scouting out cities like a pet on a leash or encouraging others to listen to Miss Justineau and learn moral sentiment to go with their bloodthirsty sentience. Is Melanie the future of the human race? And does that make her a harbinger or a source of hope for those around her? What could be a plot device becomes so much more over the course of 110 minutes, helping this latest entry in a familiar genre stand out from the crowd. Intelligent, unsettling and unexpectedly moving, The Girl with All the Gifts fittingly finds the common ground between what’s in the past and what hasn’t been done before. It deserves all the acclaim and all the attention too.
The Girl with All the Gifts is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.