The undead are dead they keep telling us. Yet every couple of years they rise from the grave to prove them wrong. The last really good zombie movie had to be The Battery and that was done with about two dollars and mostly set in the boot of a car. The Girl With All The Gifts is British so it is fair to assume that director Colm McCarthy didn’t have much more money to play with. But with a combination of big ideas, a great source novel and a terrific cast he’s only gone and made one of the best zombie movies ever and certainly one of the best British horror films of recent years.
Well I say zombie film, mostly because it has zombies in it, but the mood and feel of The Girl With All The Gifts is more like Day of the Triffids or Terry Nation’s Survivors. As in this is a typically British apocalypse and a pretty bleak film.
There aren’t many post apocalypse movies that aren’t bleak really, maybe Night of the Comet with teen heroines able to go shopping without the need for daddy’s credit card. In general, the apocalypse involves the fact that nearly everyone you know is dead, almost certainly horribly so. If you’re really unlucky they’re also trying to eat you. Everyone who isn’t dead has almost certainly turned into an arsehole and is either trying to start a new militaristic style world order or some weird sex haram in order to repopulate the world with more arseholes. The apocalypse is depressing man.
The Girl With All The Gifts at least goes for the former approach, being set in a military base where shady experiments on the undead in the hope of finding a cure are the order of the day. However the focus is not on that old story but on a young girl called Melanie. Upbeat and fiercely intelligent, Melanie lives inside a prison cell, her only relief the pictures of a cat and her lessons with the rest of the children and their teacher Helen Justinaeu, whom she loves deeply. Of course it quickly becomes apparent that all these children are zombie children who will eat Helen and the surrounding soldiers’ faces off if not strapped to their wheel chairs. The only hope for humanity is the work of Doctor Caldwell who is operating on the children to find out why they aren’t mindless cannibals, unlike the adult zombies,in the hope of finding an antidote. Obviously this “happy” life can’t last and soon everything goes to shit in a basket of crap.
What works so well here is that the film manages to capture all the detail of the book but mostly in visual form whilst, and not feeling the needed to be be a three hour behemoth that so many adaptations seem to suffer from nowadays. The entire dynamic between Melanie, Helen and the army sergeant, Parks, is summed up in a moment as Helen strokes the girl’s hair, the two females emotion in the moment and the military man’s horror at the intimacy between a human and what he sees as a monster. The opening section of the book set inside the camp is pretty long but the film wisely trims this down to a fairly short opening act. This is mostly accomplished by keeping the story focused on Melanie’s perspective: there may be terrible events going on outside the camp but we only see what Melanie sees. The upshot of this is when we are suddenly thrown into an epic zombie battle we’re really not expecting it. Add in the fact that most of it is done in one long take and you really get the feeling that McCarthy is just showing off.
This visual flair and the tight script are complemented by the superb acting. I’m not sure Paddy Considine has ever given a poor performance in his life and here he adds depth to Parks that I never noticed in the book. Same too as the villainous Doctor Caldwell. She may be the standard crazy scientist but Close makes you feel that her cold approach to child mutulation has a calculated logical reason behind it. She has rejected her own conscience and morality for the survival of humankind. I don’t need to talk about Gemma Arterton by now do I? She’s fantastic as always. The only bum note to her role isn’t even related to what she does. Early on a couple of soldiers are discussing her role as the children’s teacher and on of them says “yeah, but she’s well fit.” Ugh. I guess soldiers may well talk like that but it just seemed to jar with both what everyone is trying to do with the female characters in the film and Arterton’s in particular. The female roles presented here are not defined by their sexuality, their looks or in relation to the male characters. There’s even a scene where four female characters have an angry confrontation, passing the Bechdel test with flying colours, so why we had to have someone pointing out how fit Aterton is is beyond me.
Anyway, none of these great performances would have made the slightest difference if the girl playing Melanie hadn’t been up to scratch. Fortunately newcomer Sennia Nanua makes most experienced actors seems like amateurs with all the screen presence of a season professional whilst, at the same time, still acting like a child. Between moments of horror she has some beautiful quiet moments. For example when she is slumped in ecstasy from consuming flesh, or feelings of wonder like when she is strapped to the top of a tank, staring in slack jawed amazement at the beautiful world around her. You’d think that Nanua probably got a lot of help from the rest of the cast, but Arterton says that she came on set quite capable already. Let’s hope she gets more good roles in the future.
So a really good British zombie movie then. Who’ve thought it. It’s one of a very small exclusive club containing 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue and Plague of the Zombies… And probably the best of the bunch.