Released Feb. 24, 2017
Rated R – 1hr 51min
Directed by Colm McCarthy
Starring Glenn Close, Gemma Arterton, Paddy Considine, Sennia Nanua
In a world ravaged by a fungal outbreak that turns people into ‘hungries’ (they’re zombies), a military outpost keeps several dozen children who are infected yet intelligent in captivity – performing experiments on them in hopes of finding a cure. When the defenses are breached by a ravenous horde, a scientist (Close), a teacher (Arterton), a soldier (Considine), and one of the hybrid children (Nanua) manage to escape, but is there anywhere left to escape to?
This movie shares a lot of similarities to 28 Days Later. The frantic action, the droning score, the London setting, and the washed-out palette of the cinematography all give it the look of a film from that series while it also shares the theme of closely examining moral and civil breakdown in times of extreme crisis – questioning whether our survival as animals is worth sacrificing our distinct humanity. So if you liked 28 Days & Weeks Later, consider this a sort of spiritual sequel.
And also like a sequel, there’s some diminishing returns compared to the original. Between those two films, 12 seasons of Walking Dead shows, and countless other iterations that have evolved from George Romero’s archetypal zombies, we’ve seen this world before. We’ve seen it a lot, and The Girl… doesn’t necessarily have anything new world-wise to add to the equation. Here, the zombies have the unusual quality of being inert until stimulated, which allows the characters to be surrounded without being instantly overwhelmed and can cause a horde-building cascade that is pretty cool to see. It adds some suspense to the proceedings, even if the film plays it loose on the consistency of this idea.
However, building a unique zom-pacalypse world doesn’t seem to be the focus here – if it were, it wouldn’t lean so heavily on movies that have come before it. Instead, the story and the characters that inhabit it are the focus here, and with those, things are pretty strong. The hybrid childrens’ life in hostile captivity within the adults’ world of brutish military authoritarianism is a dark subversion of the types of themes explored by more light-hearted ‘kids vs grown-ups’ movies over the years, such as Steven Spielberg’s ‘E.T.’ – demonstrating a much harsher conflict between the generations than those more whimsical films. The girl referred to in the title is at constant odds with a society that engages her and her fellow youth only as a resource to exploit – with what can be gained from observing them in life, and what can be harvested from their bodies in death – and yet, she is always attempting to appease it, seemingly hoping that a peaceful equilibrium can be achieved if only she is good enough for it. This is just the set-up for the narrative, and while the story that follows has its ups-and-downs, it is still notably strong.
Speaking of strong, the acting here is probably the film’s most notable trait. In fact, the caliber of the talent of the cast eclipses what is demanded of the comparatively more modest script. Newcomer Sennia Nanua is fantastic as Melanie, the gifted girl, who can charm with her cordiality, polite manners, desire for meaningful human contact, and boundless curiosity of the world around her, and then run off and eat a cat alive. She succinctly captures the nuances of a character defined by her unpredictable duality, which is good because the whole movie hinges on her performance. Likewise, she is surrounded by an ensemble worthy of an award-season drama. Glenn Close – with her combined 5 statues and 33 nominations from the Oscars, Golden Globes, and Emmys – is more than capable in the role of cold utilitarian military scientist Dr. Caldwell, who can be frustrating, disgusting, pitiable, and endearing, like a realistically complex human being. Paddy Considine brings a similar if more muted dynamic to his part as Sgt. Parks, the resident hardass always fixated on the next objective so that he never need look backward. Gemma Arterton rounds out the main group as the defiant yet nurturing Miss Justineau, who becomes Melanie’s chief defender against those who wish to harm her and a surrogate mother to her despite the risks involved.
So The Girl with All the Gifts features great acting in a good story with competent direction in a rather boring been-there-done-that fictional world. It’s the unusual horror film whose horror elements feel stale and redundant yet succeeds on the strengths of its dramatic elements. While I prefer that a movie bring something creative either visually or conceptually (as opposed to mimicking other films that did), this one still goes down in the win column.
I give The Girl With All the Gifts a