It’s telling that in a time of social and political upheaval superheroes have taken centre stage, or at least centre box office. Because we need something to give us hope, something to suggest a rescuer is on the horizon, a hero will save us from the turmoil. But as George A. Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead captured the essence of the mistrust of government and the racial feelings teeming through America in the 1960s so The Girl With All The Gifts hints that maybe humans’ time as the dominant species on this planet is coming to an end.
On the surface Melanie (Sennia Nanua) is a normal girl. Except she lives in a cell, is strapped to a chair every morning and wheeled into a classroom in which other children are all tied down, seemingly for the safety of the guards who watch over them. Her one ally is her teacher Helen (Gemma Arterton) who refuses to see these children as everyone else does. When she gets too close to Melanie, Sergeant Parks (Paddy Considine) demonstrates they are far from innocent children. What emerges is that the world has succumbed to a fungal infection that taps into human brains and turns humans into blood-thirsty zombies. With the monsters knocking on the door Melanie is forced to go on the run with Helen, Parks and Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close), who believes she can create a vaccine to the outbreak, if she’s allowed to dissect Melanie.
Based on the novel of the same name by M.R. Carey The Girl With All The Gifts is a typically gritty British take on the end of the world. Like Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later it builds slowly before unleashing blood spraying hell with energy so kinetic Paul Greengrass would be proud. But there are other touchstones. The themes owe no small thanks to I Am Legend, Richard Matheson’s original novel, not the blasphemous to the source material Will Smith starrer. For those who have played the video game The Last Of Us The Girl With All The Gifts feels very familiar. The idea of a spore based disease wiping out humanity with one girl’s genetic makeup offering up the only potential for a cure. It’s that conundrum of whether one innocent life is a fair price to save humanity?
Adapting his own book, Carey smartly hones the ideas from Pandora’s Box, a theme that Melanie is fascinated by early on in the film. In doing so Carey plants a seed, one that gently seeps into your brain and begins to gestate there, not unlike the spores of the film. The idea that hope can take many shapes. At first it feels as if the setup of The Girl With All The Gifts might never fail to live up to the pay-off. But what soon becomes apparent is this is not a twisting turning plot but rather an odyssey into a broken world. A broken world in which the assumption is the only way to fix it is through curing the disease. The pay off therefore is both heartbreaking and smartly original.
Director Colm McCarthy, a veteran of TV shows such as Peaky Blinders and Sherlock, captures the dystopian world perfectly. Because for all the death and carnage on offer, nature is taking over. And within that nature, without man’s interference, amid the decay, there is a sense of serene beauty. McCarthy juxtaposes this with a frequently cacophonous score that threatens to overbear but remains just the right side to intimidate.
As you would expect from the likes of Considine, Close and Arterton the performances are all solid, although rarely excelling. However, Nanua is an actress to keep an eye on. She carries the film on her young shoulders, offering Melanie an innocence combined with an occasionally fierce and terrifying spirit.
A small little horror thriller that is big on ideas and rife with interesting and polarising characters, The Girl With All The Gifts gives and gives.