The zombie apocalypse has come and gone and humanity lost, the majority of the population reduced to mindless, ravenous monsters, “hungries”, by a fungal infection, passed by body fluids, that attacks their brains much like the parasite that afflicts the Amazonian ‘zombie’ ants, the uninfected survivors hunkering down in military bunkers and heavily fortified enclaves. 

Ten years old, Melanie (Sennia Nanua) is smart and funny and enthusiastic, loves school and her teacher Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton), is cheerful, eager to learn, vivacious, chats gaily to the jittery soldiers who strap her securely down into the wheelchair that takes her to class everyday, careful to never get within biting distance.

 Melanie’s a happy, normal ten-year-old. But if she gets loose of her bonds she might just rip your throat out with her teeth or happily feast on your innards. Melanie and her school chums are hungries but very special ones; they’re smart, still retain their humanity, their cognitive skills, the ability to think, to feel, to reason. Guarded by a squad of soldiers under the command of the taciturn, no-nonsense Sergeant Parkes (Paddy Considine), the children are not only Man’s next evolutionary step but lab rats to be studied and dissected by the icy Dr Caldwell (Glenn Close) who’s convinced a cure for the infection, and humanity’s salvation, lies in the children’s brains. 

But when the base falls to the hungry horde beyond the fence, Melanie, Miss Justineau, Dr Caldwell and Sergeant Parkes find themselves forced to work together to survive on a dangerous odyssey across a ravaged England as they search for sanctuary. 

A zombie movie with braaaains (yeah, I went there) and plenty of bite (yup, screw you, I went there too!), director Colm McCarthy’s adaptation of Mike Carey’s The Girl With All The Gifts may be the first post-Brexit horror movie, positing a world where the actions of a smug, complacent older generation have led to social and environmental collapse and left the world in ruin, forced the younger generation to evolve into cannibalism and a desire to watch the world burn. 

I’m reaching here, as The Girl With All The Gifts actually lacks for the most part the traditional political subtext of most zombie movies, barring a cheeky shopping mall nod to Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead, favouring instead a slow-burn of tension and dread punctuated by sudden and sporadic outbreaks of violence, closer in tone to the cosy catastrophe tradition of UK dystopian fiction, the likes of Johns Wyndham and Christopher rather than the more obvious zombie movie touchstones. Eschewing the novel’s multi-character point-of-view, instead sticking with Melanie, the audience experiencing this brave new world from her perspective, the visceral fall of the base a dizzying, visceral highlight, the film’s true horror growing from it’s human protagonists and their choices rather than the mechanical machinations of the plot. As a result, some characters suffer, Glenn Close’s Caldwell in particular feels less sharply drawn than in the novel, Considine’s Parkes’ redemptive arc feels more perfunctory, but the film takes no prisoners, delivering a bleak, vision of the future that’s true to the novel’s spirit. 

Aided immeasurably by a throbbing, ominous score by Chilean composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer (Channel 4’s Utopia), both the strength and the weakness of McCarthy’s The Girl With All The Gifts is that we never root for anyone other than the monster, Melanie being the most sympathetic and sharply drawn of the film’s characters, a hungry, homicidal Matilda experiencing the world for the first time and remaking it in her own image, Nanua near-perfect, both naïve and knowing, sympathetic and painfully enthusiastic, and there’s strong support from Arterton as the quietly desperate, maternal Justineau, determined to go to any lengths to protect her favourite student, even at the expense of her species, while Close’s Caldwell is Justineau’s antithesis, defined by her cold rationality and ultimately undone by it’s fracturing while Considine’s Parkes is a raw wound of a man, his callous brusqueness masking a devastating grief that drives and tortures him. 

Daring to place the question of just what makes us human at it’s heart, The Girl With All The Gifts is an intelligent, thrilling, unflinching piece of cinema that may just be the best British film you’ll see this year.      

 

DVD Review: The Girl With All The Gifts
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