8 out of 10
Gemma Arterton as Helen Justineau
Directed by Colm McCarthy
The Girl with All the Gifts Review:
Fans of the video game The Last of Us will find much to recognize in The Girl with All the Gifts, based on the young adult novel by M. R. Carey. So much so, in fact, that players may not realize that the book and the game were being created at the same time. Both deal with a deadly fungus that almost wipes out mankind, leaving most of the humans left to be flesh-eating infected, while the few uninfected are secluded away in underground bunkers and military installations. Both give us strong characters, terrifying situations, and a surprising emotional resonance that stays with you after it is over. I think fans of both the video game and the novel that this film is based on will approve wholeheartedly.
The Girl with All the Gifts opens as several children are being held in one of those facilities outside London. These children are hybrids – in the womb when the cordyceps fungus spread, and while they exhibit some of the behaviors of the infected, they can also think for themselves. Melanie (Sennia Nanua) is one of these hybrids – she’s very intelligent, curious, and friendly to her captors. But those captors, who include Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close) and Sergeant Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine), do not consider these children to be human, or even alive. Dr. Caldwell can’t explain why these infected have cognitive function, but she knows in her heart that a cure for the infection is somewhere within these children, and she cannot allow herself to see them as anything other than tools towards a vaccine.
Melanie has formed a special bond with one of the doctors assigned to teach and test the children’s intelligence, Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton), and Helen senses something very special about Melanie. But suddenly the infected attack, and Melanie finds herself escaping with Helen, Dr. Caldwell, and Sgt. Parks into London in hopes of connecting with another uninfected group. It becomes apparent very quickly that Melanie, who possesses attributes of both infected and uninfected, is very special indeed, and Dr. Caldwell must weigh the moral possibilities of what Melanie is.
Colm McCarthy, best known for his work in television, including “Sherlock” and “Doctor Who,” has created a lot with a little with The Girl with All the Gifts. Lone shots of an empty, overgrown London are impressive, and McCarthy doesn’t hold back when it comes to the violence and blood. This is the end of the world, after all, and McCarthy rightfully gives everything an elegiac tone. But he also gets wonderful performances out of the cast, especially newcomer Sennia Nanua, who is incredible as Melanie. She is our guide in this ruined landscape, and her optimism and curiosity are at odds with the devastation before us. I never expected to see Glenn Close in a zombie movie, but she is terrific as well, as the conflict between her ideals and her science grows. Gemma Arterton has real empathy and power, and the relationship between Helen and Melanie is emotional and moving. I’ve loved Paddy Considine for years (his work in Jim Sheridan’s In America is an all-timer), and he’s no less great here, as Sgt. Parks slowly comes to respect and even admire Melanie.
There is a ton of subtext in The Girl with All the Gifts — from race and class relations, to how we treat our children — but it’s only there if you want it. For zombie film fans, all that gooey sentiment may get in the way, but the best zombie films have always tempered their hopelessness with great characters and emotion. The “hungries,” as the soldiers call them, are terrifying and relentless, and McCarthy stages the attacks with a precision and intensity that is appropriate. Even though The Girl with All the Gifts is based on a young adult novel, McCarthy and the script by M. R. Carey do not spare us the gory, horrifying details. Carey’s script is a skillful adaptation; although streamlined, Carey does not take away the power and emotion of the novel. Those fans of the book need not worry.
The Girl with All the Gifts stuck with me. Even at a film festival like Fantastic Fest, which is full of distraction and all sorts of genre fare, there is something elegant and pure about The Girl with All the Gifts that makes this zombie film stand out. Perhaps it’s the performances, or the themes, or the writing. The Girl with All the Gifts is very effective at putting its audience on edge, and as our love and respect for Melanie grows, so does our unease. I admire how the film is as expansive as it is with a limited budget, and I continue to be impressed with how modern filmmakers build their cinematic worlds with restraint and grace, allowing audiences to fill in the blanks. The Girl with All the Gifts is impeccably made, and strongly emotional. The best zombie films are about transition, about explosive change that shatters everything in its wake, about a world suddenly forced to come to grips with unrelenting forces outside their ability to control. On that front, The Girl with All the Gifts succeeds admirably. For zombie movie fans (and technically, if you want to be genre nitpicky, it’s not a zombie movie but an infected movie), The Girl with All the Gifts should fit the bill nicely, but there’s something for everyone in it. This is a very good film, and one that you get to take with you, in your own personal mindscape cinema, when you leave.