What a shame that this debut feature by Colm McCarthy – based on Mike Carey’s novel The Girl With All The Gifts – can’t sustain the quality of its excellent first act, which is as good an opening to a zombie* film as I’ve seen since Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. McCarthy – clearly a director who does not want to waste a moment of the running time – drops the viewer right in the middle of the action without any explanation as to what is happening or even much in the way of contextual information: we meet a young girl named Melanie (newcomer Sennia Nanua) who is sleeping in a makeshift prison cell in a military bunker. A pair of soldiers wake her up and act nervously around her, despite the fact they are both heavily armed. From this we can deduce that she is dangerous, but when we see her heavily-strapped into a wheelchair and wheeled around the complex it seems overly-cautious, and cruel. Other adults treat her in the same way as the two soldiers, but when Melanie joins a group of normal-looking children in a classroom – all similarly-restrained – they all seem harmless enough. What gives, exactly?
Answers are not easily forthcoming, and as it turns out the characters in The Girl With All The Gifts are too busy concentrating on the present and the future to provide much exposition by discussing past events, though Melanie is a subject of interest for pretty much everyone else in the story. Soon enough we learn that a virus has infected most of the British (world?) population, so cities and the countryside are overrun with flesh-eating twats – here referred to as ‘Hungries’; because of the constant threat posed by these vicious, relentless creatures – who mainly respond to natural human body odour – the survivors that we encounter have no time to lose, or to dwell on losses incurred, and no truck with slackness or risk-taking.
Four main adult characters guide us through the story, each forming a different kind of bond with Melanie as the film progresses: Gemma Arterton has a starring role as kind-hearted teacher Helen Justineau, but her warmth and idealism may be a hindrance and a danger to others; Paddy Considine is brusque soldier Eddie Parks; Glenn Close plays a doctor, Caroline Caldwell, whose tunnel-vision search for an antidote to the virus forces her to ignore any long-standing ethical concerns; and Fisayo Akinade is another soldier, Kieran Gallagher, who may as well be carrying a sign around his neck bearing the legend ‘Dead Meat’ throughout.
The first 45 minutes takes place in the bunker before these characters, and Melanie, move outside and set off on a journey to London, aiming to meet up with fellow survivors. The opening is excellent, with Carey – who has adapted his own book – asking questions about human behaviour, science, evolution and the form that survival might take during an apocalypse. However, as these themes are established, we are also treated to visceral thrills: the Hungries in full flight are a terrifying prospect, and their first en masse appearance brings edge-of-your-seat tension. Afterwards, the film becomes more and more concerned with the natural world and natural order, remaining on the more fascinating, intelligent end of the horror scale, but it also gradually takes on several familiar genre tropes and design influences that I feel just slightly undermines an otherwise original, intriguing movie. There are nail-biting walks through crowds of docile zombies, a la The Walking Dead; the shots of overgrown London – where all the grey, Brutalist concrete has gradually been covered by plant life – echoes the ravaged cities of The Last Of Us (though older viewers may think of Day Of The Triffids); the use of empty London streets and occasional familiar sights recalls 28 Days Later; and as with any zombie film the shadow of Romero looms large – there are ripples of Dawn Of The Dead, among others. All good cultural touchstones, yes, but sadly all combining to highlight the typicality of the final hour of this film.
Still, it’s hard to create something entirely new in this field, especially given the popularity of zombies within pop culture during the past 30 years, and Carey, McCarthy and the cast and crew have clearly tried hard to do so; they even managed to for close to half of the film, which is impressive in itself. It looks good, too, despite a relatively small budget of £4 million.
The actors do decent jobs, though some of the quality drops off during the final hour, and for the most part Nanua impresses in the key role. I won’t go into the ending too much but it’s a little too neat for my liking – and it drew a few snorts of derision in my local cinema – though some may find it clever. So, overall, it’s worth a watch, but particularly for the first 40-45 minutes; during that I briefly thought that I was watching one of the better films of the year. McCarthy is worth keeping an eye on.
*As has been the case in numerous postmillennial ‘zombie’ films, the flesh-eaters in this film can run, which I gather upsets some purists, who argue that they’re not technically zombies as a result. However, for sanity and ease of reviewing I’ve referred to them here as such. Eat it, nerds!
Directed by: Colm McCarthy.
Written by: M.R. Carey. Based on The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey.
Starring: Sennia Nanua, Gemma Arterton, Paddy Considine, Glenn Close, Fisayo Akinade.
Cinematography: Simon Dennis.
Editing: Matthew Cannings.
Music: Cristobal Tapia de Veer.
Running Time: 111 minutes.