Genre: Drama, Horror, Thriller
Directed by: Colm McCarthy
Starring: Gemma Arterton, Glenn Close, Paddy Considine, Sennia Nanua
In 2016, dystopia isn’t what it used to be. The Hunger Games might have the same extrospective spirit as, say, 1984, but it’s pared down, and mixed in with the far weaker elements that perhaps define the ‘young adult’ genre. The zombie subgenre hasn’t fared much better; The Walking Dead started out balancing philosophical character focus and the usual carnage, but has got progressively weaker and emotionally exploitative as it’s worn on (anyone who watched the show’s season 6 finale will know exactly what I’m talking about there…).
So it’s a very pleasant surprise when something like The Girl with All the Gifts turns up. From the basic premise, you wouldn’t be able to tell it apart from Hunger Games et al.; it follows Melanie (newcomer Sennia Nanua), a young girl growing up in a post-apocalyptic, zombie-ridden British army base. Yet there’s one key distinction here: Melanie is, to a certain extent, one of the zombies herself. Her and the other children housed in the base have the same fungal virus that has overcome most of the population, but unless they get the scent of prey, they present as perfectly normal kids: thus they are both students – learning the periodic table and reading Greek mythology – and prisoners, both inherently vulnerable and irresistibly dangerous. But for a couple scenes later on, Melanie is our only perspective, the protagonist by default (the book gives the first-person perspectives of 5 characters including her), yet, she is seen as anything but a hero by those manning the base, and throughout the film, Glenn Close’s Dr Caldwell makes the case that they are right to think so.As a drama, the film is effective, and unexpectedly moving. By 5 minutes or so in, it’s hard not to be on ‘Melanie’s side’, not to feel a sense of injustice at the way the children are strapped into wheelchairs while learning. Melanie herself is clearly bright and friendly, greeting each solider warmly by name even as they secure her and push her out of her cell. Yet a minute later, and the moral conundrum that is the central conceit rears its head; Melanie’s story in ‘class’ highlights her connection with the ‘teacher’, Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton), a set of events that leads eventually to dozens of the children turning feral, jaws loose and biting, shattering the illusion of normality. Yet still somehow, here and throughout, Melanie seems trustworthy. While escaping as the base is overrun by the ‘hungries’ (the film’s word for zombies), Melanie gives into her instincts, biting down and feeding on two soldiers – yet only to save Justineau. The ending to the film reflects this conflicted morality – some will sympathise, while others no doubt will not.
Regardless, none of it would seem to matter if not for the fantastic performance of Nanua in only her second credited role, with the first being a supporting part in 2015 short Beverley. Her interactions, and infatuation with Justineau come across as almost forced, yet rather than being a flaw of the actor, it’s a perfect portrayal of a young character clinging to the one friendly figure in an undeniably bleak existence. Melanie is exceptionally bright, especially for someone living such a sheltered life (to me, perhaps an influence of the fungus within the context of other details revealed about the infection), and naturally inquisitive, annoyingly so maybe – yet that’s exactly what she should be in the context. The three ‘big names’ of the cast – Arterton, Close, and Paddy Considine as Sgt. Parks – all play off Nanua with great chemistry, with each relationship giving a different edge to the film.The atmosphere is as important as the characters to any dystopia – and Gifts sells that equally well. I’m not usually one to judge a film by its budget (the figure usually being highly deceptive given the disparity of marketing costs, salaries, crew sizes and so on between indie flicks and studio films), but the film looks amazingly good for the £4 million it cost, either a testament to good production planning behind the scenes, or to the advances made in VFX so that something can have the sort of shots Gifts does on such a budget. Added to that is steady direction by Colm McCarthy, a regular director on the BBC but, like his lead Nanua, only on his second feature-length credit here, and, perhaps most crucially, an eerily soulful and beautiful score by Cristobal Tapia de Veer. His work on Channel 4’s Utopia and Humans are two of my favourite recent television soundtracks, and with Gifts he excels once more. The aforementioned first minutes of the film showcase the recurring motif, a combination of distorted vocals and heavy percussion that is perfect for the scene.
If you didn’t get the message by now – go see The Girl with All the Gifts. It might not appeal to those who aren’t fans of the genres (but then I’d imagine those people will have clicked away long before now), and with the 15 rating you get the appropriate gore and threat usually missing from 12A dystopias, so be warned there, but it offers everything necessary for a compelling film and story.