The Girl With All the Gifts review: a zombie movie with both guts and brains
By Tim Robey, Film Critic
Director: Colm McCarthy. Cast: Glenn Close, Gemma Arterton, Paddy Considine, Fisayo Akinade, Sennia Nanua, Dominique Tipper, Anamaria Marinca, Lobna Futers, Anthony Welsh. 15 cert, 111 min
Just when you thought zombie apocalypses had run out of fresh DNA, The Girl with all the Gifts comes up with a brand new evolution. Propulsive, scary and intelligently bolted together, this inventive British science fiction film guides us into familiar genre territory from a perspective that changes everything.
Melanie (newcomer Sennia Nannua) is a 10-year-old protagonist of rare resourcefulness and mental agility. She begins the film incarcerated, along with many others like her, in an underground military bunker which is besieged 24/7 by hordes of undead – known in the script’s parlance as “hungries”, rather than zombies.
Melanie is being schooled and raised as a vital asset in the war between humankind and this fungally-spread epidemic. Her usefulness against the flesh-eaters is a matter of biology: she’s one of them. Her teacher, Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton), refuses to accept her as subhuman so much as a tragic victim of the plague. They’re caught in regular face-offs with Glenn Close’s severe, white-cropped vaccinologist Dr Caldwell, who believes she’s close to a cure, and intends to harvest Melanie’s brain and spinal cord to synthesise it.
Even as the film bursts free of its subterranean confinement and goes on the run, the author M.R. Carey, adapting his own novel, keeps an ethical debate rigorously in play about the greater good. Close’s character needs Nannua’s for her research, but only for this reason is the latter brought along, muzzled, when a small group flees the base: the need cuts two ways, then, between natural enemies thrust together in a wary truce that can’t last.
It’s a shock when director Colm McCarthy first unleashes a flurry of grisly attacks, perhaps because his film’s steady, deceptively polite first movement gives it the feel of a young-adult dystopia – the Hunger Games with hungries, if you like. It’s much stronger meat than that.
The best moments in Nannua’s performance come in the immediate aftermath of feeding – when she’s pounced on two of her military captors, or an unsuspecting pigeon, or at one point a cat. Her expression, artlessly sincere when she speaks, goes woozy and almost drunk from haemoglobin, and McCarthy’s camera wades right in there with her.
Willing to help the dwindling gaggle of uninfected humans she has escaped with, Melanie gains their trust as a scout, engineering distractions to clear their path through a spookily derelict NW London. I was astonished to learn the film’s budget was a mere £4m: co-opting various suburbs in Birmingham and the West Midlands, it even trumps Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, which cost double that, in evoking a thoroughly British apocalypse, with long-abandoned branches of Next and Waterstones peeking out amid the overgrowth.
The scenes where Paddy Considine’s grim-faced sergeant leads his companions gingerly past dozens of sleeping ghouls have a grandmother’s-footsteps suspense, because McCarthy has already established his ruthlessness with merking significant cast members: when you’re bitten by one of these things, it takes seconds before you’re champing and baring your teeth just like them.
The only significant design flaw is the feral troupe of child-hungries we meet late on, whose costuming is too fanciful, making them look like grimy refugees from JM Barrie. And the film ends exactly one scene too late, lessening the brutal statement its ending might have made. But these really aren’t deal-breakers in a crisp bullseye of a debut feature which has guts and brains to spare.