The Girl With All the Gifts – Film Review by Gareth Stack
Director: Colm McCarthy
Writers: Mike Carey (novel), Mike Carey (screenplay)
Stars: Gemma Arterton, Glenn Close, Paddy Considine
It’s a handful of years since the zombie apocalypse. Military outposts hold back the hordes, while nature turns abandoned cities to Ballardian gardens. Infected ‘hungries’ are possessed by a bite born brain fungus whose spores threaten to spread the virus to the air. One precocious girl, infected but partly immune, and gradually becoming aware of her tragic curse, may hold the key to a cure. Our heroes journey across a transformed landscape, learning about one another and the nature of the infection, before making a decision that balances the future of humanity with the life of a single child. If this all sounds oddly familiar you’ve probably played 2013’s The Last of Us; a beautifully written and well-realised videogame, released before the book this film was based on. While games are often criticised for their stock characters, embarrassing storytelling and over-reliance on titillation and ultra-violence, The Last of Us is a superb exception: a game that constructs a visually arresting world, bedded in a tortured botany that mirrors the fragmented psychology of its survivors. All tied together in a plot so similar to The Girl with All the Gifts it’s hard not to read its already classic interactive narrative as a rebuke to the shallow writing and characterisation of this all too ordinary film.
All horror movies are allegories. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is a visceral articulation of the racial turmoil of 1960s America. The Shining is a through-a-mirror-darkly reflection on domestic violence. The Fly examines the dehumanising degradation and social opprobrium of the AIDS crisis. The best of them hold a multiplicity of interpretations, intended and unintended readings alike hidden behind door 237, if we can only find the right key. Too often in contemporary cinema, this higher purpose – the cathexis of our fears and traumas – is abandoned in favour of cheap jump scares and ‘fan service’ re-imaginings. Achieving something that wields the mythic cudgel of fear without becoming crushed under the weight of cliché isn’t easy. Given the ready audience for even the hokiest found footage melodrama, there’s little perceived need to innovate. When it succeeds horror can be transformative – reaching into the collective unconscious to release primal fears and dissect prejudices. Where it fails, the results are ridiculous beyond all toleration. So what’s the allegory here? A variety of horrors ancient and modern, from Abu Ghraib to Pandora’s Box are explicitly referenced – but it’s the institutional abuse of children that rings most clearly in the films opening act. Glen Closes’ crop topped military surgeon vivisecting creatures she believes exhibit only ‘exquisite mimicry of observed behaviours’ – brings to mind both gay conversion therapy and forced adoptions. Whether the film has anything to say about such weighty themes, or merely employs them for shock and stolen valour is debatable.
Performances are solid across the board – from Glen Close’s gleefully inhuman Dr Caldwell, to Paddy Considine’s brutalised army sergeant. However, Sennia Nanua’s eerily self-possessed turn as the pre-teen protagonist Melanie transcends the material. Melanie balances humanity with something more profane, intelligence with savagery, innocence with knowing cruelty. The all too short moments we spend with her, whether caged and masked like a doe eyed Hannibal Lector, or roaming the remnants of a ruined world she never had a chance to inhabit, are captivating. Alas the movie’s attempts to heroise her through violence feel stretched. One fight in particular against a herd of feral children, is more Hook than Mad Max. Nanua’s performance, and its connection with adult unease at the savage desires of pubescent children, could have rooted a worthier effort. Alas this is by no means a modern horror classic in the vein of Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go or Tomas Alfredson’s Let The Right One In. Ultimately your enjoyment may depend on your tolerance of zombie cliché. For me, high shutter-speed footage of homeless people running around with porridge on their faces just looks silly. This is probably the best serious zombie film since Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. If you found that film’s clumsy mix of flat cinematography, Omega Man abandoned metropolis and desperate arguments punctuated by headshots and nibbling hordes compelling, you’ll enjoy this. If not, can I suggest you play the game?