Twenty or so minutes into The Girl with All the Gifts and Glenn Close is thrusting scissors into the skulls of a couple of ravenous, blood-crazed ‘hungries’ (aka zombies) who have had the temerity to break into her military research facility and take a chunk out of her lab assistant. That’s not something you see every day in the movies. Six-time Academy Award nominee Glenn Close, more recently on sizzling form as superbitch lawyer Patty Hewes in five seasons of TV’s Damages, taking on the living dead in post-apocalypse Britain. What’s the world coming to?
Or rather, where’s the world going? To Hell in a handcart, according to The Girl with All the Gifts, adapted by M.R. Carey from his acclaimed novel. It might seem like faint praise but this is the best British ‘zombie’ movie since 28 Days Later and, in its own way, it’s as visually arresting, disturbing and powerful as Danny Boyle’s 2002 game-changer. But in truth, TGWATG (as it shall be henceforth known) is darker, bleaker and considerably more apocalyptic than most entries into its genre. This ain’t no date night/feel good/holding hands movie, boys and girls. We’re ten years into a terrible fungus-like viral infection which has spread across the UK (and, we can only assume, the world) and humanity is sliding towards extinction. The infected have become flesh-eating savages, but a tiny military enclave in the English countryside is conducting hideous experiments on young children who carry the virus, exhibit cannibalistic tendencies and yet have sentience and intelligence. Dr. Caldwell (Close) is on the verge of synthesising a vaccine but when the facility is overrun she and a few survivors – Paddy Considine’s hard-nosed soldier Sgt. Parkes, kindly teacher Dr. Justineau (Gemma Arterton), a rather special young girl called Melanie (Sennia Nanua) amongst them – flee across hostile countryside and venture into a deserted London crumbling back into the arms of Nature in search of sanctuary and the means for Dr. Caldwell to complete her work.
Brittle and brutal and yet shot through with a knowing vein of black humour, TGWATG is a gripping and intelligent thriller in which the ‘hungries’ are the least of mankind’s problems, set against a terrifying and ingeniously crafted threat which is slowly spreading its tentacles across the face of a decaying planet. Despite its stellar adult cast, the film is really all about young newcomer Sennia Nanua, whose frankly stunning performance effortlessly captures both Melanie’s humanity and her inhumanity to the extent that we’re never sure whether we should fall in love with her fresh-faced innocence or fear the monster inside which is never far away from the surface. Gemma Arterton suffers for her art in an unflattering jumper and shapeless combat fatigues, her humanist teacher Dr. Justineau losing her dramatic imperative as the group find themselves sequestered in an overgrown London (beautifully subtle visual effects creating some hauntingly memorable images of a city long-lost to civilisation), and Paddy Considine is solidly four-square as the no-nonsense matter-of-fact soldier struggling against impossible odds to keep the group together.
TGWATG is peppered with the sort of fast-paced action sequences and moments of high drama and jeopardy we might expect from what we might lazily describe as a ‘zombie’ movie, but this is as much a cerebral, contemplative experience as it is a balls-to-the-wall end-of-the-world horror movie. This is, to roll out an all-too-familiar genre cliché, a film which asks us to think about what it means to be human and yet also what humanity really is. Director Colm McCarthy (his CV is virtually a ‘best of’ list of recent British TV drama) has crafted a mature, sophisticated, occasionally shocking but always captivating apocalyptic drama which, in the end, is both grimly, determinedly downbeat and yet oddly uplifting and optimistic. The Girl with All the Gifts tells us that life will always prevail – in one form or another. A majestic experience.
THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: COLM MCCARTHY / SCREENPLAY: M.R. CAREY / STARRING: GEMMA ARTYERTON, PADDY CONSIDINE, GLENN CLOSE, SENNIA NANUA / RELEASE DATE: SEPTEMBER 23RD
Expected Rating: 7 out of 10