Colm McCarthy’s second feature film, The Girl with All the Gifts is a gory and unsettling examination of the nature versus nurture dichotomy, and proves an excellent opening gambit from young newcomer Sennia Nanua in the title role. Melanie is a bright-eyed, oddly enthusiastic child trapped within the confines of a gloomy military compound. Her mornings begin the same each day, greeted by nervy armed guards that strap her into a wheelchair and muzzle her before rolling her to her daily lessons. We only have a few scenes to wait to discover why all the precautions – Melanie is a carnivorous zombie.
A strange variant of a fungal infection has wiped out most of the world’s population. For some unknown reason her strain of the disease has allowed her to retain her higher functions. Within her brain and those of her fellow pupils may lie the cure to the world-devouring plague. The prospect that behind the innocent eyes of a young child might be a murderous killer is a long-held tradition of horror. From Joseph Losey’s These Are the Damned and Children of the Corn to Kirsten Dunst’s Claudia in Interview with a Vampire, we have had a plethora of killer children that have unsettled and unnerved us. Melanie is no different and the entire film nods effectively to the Quatermass heyday of British apocalyptic sci-fi.
Surrounding Melanie are a trio of archetypes; a loving mother-figure in the form of teacher Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton), mad scientist Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close) and gruff, morally suspect soldier Sgt. Parks (Paddy Considine). These are well-worn tropes, yet at the film’s core is an argument regarding our most innate instincts, begging us to question as to whether a young child’s blood-lust will win out and if she will then turn on her protectors. The Girl with All the Gifts is based on the novel of the same name by Mike Carey, who is also responsible for the screenplay. Carey seems to have had no qualms in making drastic changes to his own source novel, some in part to the source story’s detriment by bringing in little that’s original whilst extracting some of the book’s stronger elements.
We watch as the survivors navigate an overgrown London, where hibernating ‘hungries’ sway in the breeze, sleeping until they get the whiff of blood and we’re provided with a series of tense chase sequences. McCarthy’s background is in television, with credits including the BBC’s Sherlock and Peaky Blinders. His talents haven’t transferred completely successfully to the big screen, where the action is kept small and the world tightly contained with little room to breathe. This can be done with success, as seen in Stephen Fingleton’s disturbing 2015 debut The Survivalist, yet here the overall effect is lacklustre. What catches the attention is Nauna’s lead performance, holding her own against a well-weathered older cast. Sadly, as a zombie film The Girl with All the Gifts feels a little old hat.
Joe Walsh | @JosephDAWalsh