Director: Colm McCarthy
Cast: Gemma Arterton, Glenn Close, Paddy Considine and Sennia Nanua
Runtime: 111 minutes
Release date: September 23rd
Just like its main character, The Girl with All the Gifts has oodles of disarming charm but its underlying issues mean that not everyone would want to spend two hours in its company. It is set in a dystopian future where zombies roam the land and human survivors are holed up in military bunkers. It’s in one of these bunkers that we’re introduced to a polite young girl named Melanie (Nanua), who’s being restrained at gunpoint by a pair of agitated soldiers. So either people in dystopian futures take school transport very seriously or this little girl is not exactly what she seems. Things hit the fan when zombies attack the bunker but Melanie escapes with her teacher, a scientist and some soldiers from the base.
The British setting, zombie apocalypse and gloomy ambience have strong echoes of 28 Days Later, but this film is a very different kind of animated corpse. Danny Boyle’s film was a thrilling ride but The Girl with All the Gifts is a more contemplative take on the zombie experience. Still, it comes alive when Nanua is on screen and she invests the character with a brilliant combination of fragility and resilience. The young actress brings a bright-eyed dynamism to every scene and illuminates what would otherwise be an underwhelming film. Her character is a walking conundrum, an anomaly in a world that’s already gone mad.
In many ways, this is a zombie film told through the eyes of a child. We’re given a sense of her wonder, curiosity and innocence, but the darkness is never too far away. So the mouldy extras with the snapping jaws are reduced to secondary attractions in Melanie’s journey.
Her travelling companions are all standard issue supporting characters, but a good cast do their best with what they have. The gruff Sergeant Parks (Considine) acts as a jaded foil to the young girl’s innocence and Arterton is the doting teacher with a penchant for silent weeping. Glenn Close stars as a flinty scientist who sees Melanie as a scientific asset and she plays the role with a blunt but detached menace.
The Girl with All the Gifts is a thoughtful addition to the zombie genre that touches on themes like self-determination, nature over nurture and generational upheaval. That’s some heady stuff for a genre that’s best know for gratuitous brain-eating and extreme violence towards the undead. Unfortunately, having such a vivid central character throws an unflattering light on the film’s other shortcomings. The supporting characters seem relatively bland by comparison. The film also fails to utilise the dramatic potential of the biggest asset in any zombie film.
The group traipse through a world that is literally teeming with zombies, but you rarely experience anything more exciting than a mild sense of unease. A bit of tension or an actual fright doesn’t seem like too much to ask for. Yet Nanua’s captivating performance is enough to recommend it and it does deliver a memorable climax. It is a great addition to the zombie canon, but that’s not quite enough to make it a great film, even if its philosophical musings do linger with you after it ends.