Zombie drama The Girl with All the Gifts follows the exploits of a most dysfunctional family, says MacDara Conroy
If you’ve seen one zombie movie, you’ve seen them all. A sweeping generalisation, to be sure, but never more so than in the case of The Girl with All the Gifts, in essence a mixtape of the genre’s greatest hits. The bleak as anything escort-quest-to-nowhere plot is straight out of the 28 Days Later and Walking Dead playbooks, while the hints at social criticism and, more to the point, the inevitability that the flood can no longer be turned back nod to George Romero’s seminal classics.
At the same time, it’s also not strictly a ‘zombie’ movie. Adapted from his own novel by comic writer MR Carey, the plague that befalls mankind in this instance is not quite the undead. A mind-controlling fungus (inspired by actual spores that take over the brains of ants) has infected the populace, turning them into ‘hungries’ with a single-minded, ravenous appetite for living flesh – of healthy humans, in turn infected by their bites, but also cats, dogs, birds, you name it.
Some, however, are not like the others; they think and act like normal humans most of the time, apart from a few explosive moments when their cannibalistic instincts take hold and the need to feed trumps all other considerations. Children exhibiting such behaviour have been quarantined at a military base somewhere in rural England, where Dr Caldwell (Glenn Close) conducts experiments to synthesise a vaccine against the disease, and Justineau (Gemma Arterton) holds daily school lessons for the youngsters, among their number star pupil Melanie (Sennia Nanua), who seemingly has more control over her instincts than her classmates.
Naturally this status quo is upset when the hordes of hungries amassing at the fences storm the base, and only a handful of survivors manage to escape – the teacher, the doctor, a tiny band of soldiers led by Sgt Parks (Paddy Considine) and Melanie, who’s fitted with a translucent Hannibal Lecter-like mask to protect the others from her intermittent bouts of hunger as the group makes slow progress towards a salvation that grows increasingly distant.
The story that ensues does not stray far from the usual genre tropes, and a few hit the nail a bit too hard on the head; a visit to a hungry-infested shopping centre is a highlight but one borrowed liberally and literally from Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Veteran TV director Colm McCarthy handles these and other set-ups with a true eye and ear for the cinema. The tension is palpable, the frights are earned. But we’ve been there before.
What really separates The Girl with All the Gifts from the rest is its core as a strong character piece charting the dissolution of a most dysfunctional family. Close is good as the scientist clouded in her judgement as she strives for a solution at all costs. Better are Considine as the soldier whose hard-man exterior hides a grieving father in pain, and Arterton as the all-rounder for whom maternal and capable are not mutually exclusive concepts, as handy with a machine gun as she is with a blackboard chalk.
But star of the show is 12-year-old debutante Nanua, whose haunting roboticisms amid her good-natured East Midlands warmth serve as a constant reminder that Melanie is not to be entirely trusted. It’s quite the gift, indeed.
The Girl with All the Gifts opens nationwide on Friday September 23rd
Also published on Medium.