We had high expectations for The Girl With All The Gifts: MR Carey adapting his own brilliant novel, a superb cast and a trailer that promised something special. Colm McCarthy’s film not only meets our expectations; it’s one of the best British genre films in years.
Britain has been overrun by ‘hungries’, people turned into monsters by an infection with no known cure. In a bunker beneath a military outpost, soldiers and scientists keep a group of children under lock and key. When they’re outside their cells, their arms, legs and heads are restrained, and they are not to be touched.
Young Melanie (Sennia Nanua) is cheerful, polite and curious, and completely besotted with her kindly teacher Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton). The soldiers who shuttle Melanie from her cell to the classroom treat her like a dangerous monster, Sergeant Parks (Paddy Considine) refers to her as “a frigging abortion”, and Dr Caldwell (Glenn Close) sees her as a curiosity to be studied.
When the base is attacked, these four and two soldiers (Fisayo Akinade and Anthony Welsh) manage to escape, but there’s a lot of ground and a lot of hungries between them and the nearest outpost. As they make their way through the countryside and into London, Melanie will learn exactly what she is, and what she might become.
There will be a lot of comparisons to 28 Days Later, and to be fair, both films have a similarly grounded aesthetic, sprinting not-zombie zombies and a healthy dose of John Wyndham. But this feels like a breath of fresh air. It’s not just because of the twists that Carey gives his undead, although the fungal spore infection is fascinating and makes for some incredibly striking visuals later on; it’s a confident, complex, genre-bending piece of work that is at once confrontational, affecting, frightening and humane.
Melanie is the film’s trump card, as we see the horror, devastation and humanity through the eyes of this innocent but deadly child. As the film progresses, Melanie goes from dangerous liability to confident protector before being faced with the final act’s big question. Newcomer Sennia Nanua is absolutely superb, and McCarthy does an incredible job with the difficult balancing act that the script presents. Emotionally, we’re on her side from the very beginning, but she’s going to do some horrifying things.
And when it comes to the horror, McCarthy doesn’t pull any punches. There are some truly shocking and gut-wrenching sequences, as well as moments that are deeply moving. He’s helped by a perfect cast, with a career-best Arterton as the teacher who can’t help but see the humanity in her charges, the predictably excellent Considine as the gruff soldier who gradually starts to feel for Melanie, and the great Glenn Close as the cold scientist who knows that salvation requires sacrifice.
Readers of the book will know that the question of salvation is a complex one, as the group of survivors walk through a world that is in the process of being claimed by something relentless that hasn’t finished its work yet.
McCarthy’s ruined city is beautifully rendered, using drone footage from Pripyat as a base for his imagery (although anyone who knows Birmingham will recognise it standing in for London). Carey’s screenplay also deserves high praise for its rich, complex characterisation and blend of horror, fairy tale and cautionary tale.
The Girl With All The Gifts is an excellent and emotional spin on the zombie genre with superb performances. Moving, intelligent and frightening, this will grip you by the throat.