Thursday 3 November 2016

The Girl With All the Gifts (UK/USA 2016: Dir Colm McCarthy)

This is Colm McCarthy's second feature film as director. His first, Outcast, from 2010, weaved magic and dysfunctional relationships in an uneasy and decidedly low budget mix. The Girl With All the Gifts, an adaptation of M R Carey's bestselling 'possible future' novel of the same name (Carey also wrote the screenplay) is similarly downbeat, a kind of paean to 1970s UK dystopian sci fi television, but with some bigger themes (and bigger stars) on display.

The Girl With All the Gifts opens with a group of young children in a classroom setting, somewhere deep within a secure facility. Unusually the children are manacled. One of them, Melanie, shows a high degree of intelligence and a connection with their teacher, Helen Justineau (a nicely downplayed performance from Gemma Arterton). Sgt Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine, slightly going through the motions) is wary of treating the children as 'normal' - he exposes a bare arm which is enough to set off the childrens' collective bestial behaviour. For these children are infected by the same fungal disease that has turned most of the rest of the country into crazed zombies nicknamed 'hungries' - the children display much more control and sentience, although they're feared by the military staff (who wear protective gel to disguise their human smell) and fed on a diet of worms to remind us of their genus. When the hungries break through the compound's barrier and into the facility, Melanie, Parks and Justineau all manage to escape in a truck also containing Dr Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close, icy and not exactly redefining herself), a ruthless scientist who believes that the children bodily carry the infection's antidote via their brain tissue and spinal fluid, and therefore must be sacrificed to save the world. But Melanie has other ideas.

This is a zombie film which attempts something a little loftier than the usual. Don't get me wrong, it's still a B movie, albeit an expensively cast one - more than half of the film is devoted to the characters wandering the overgrown abandoned shopping arcades of our once great cities, for example - but in concentrating the story on the androgynous Melanie (a stellar performance from newcomer Sennia Nanua) rather than the zombie hordes it offers some more interesting observations about the relationship between infected and uninfected.

I liked the way in which the film slowly explained the relationship between the different factions rather than rushing to cram the exposition into the film's first fifteen minutes, and how it referenced the changing shape of the virus: as a fungus, it begins to sprout from the dead into huge, spreading growths containing seed pods that if broken will make the disease airborne. The generational aspect of the zombies is also interesting and probably the most frightening idea in the film - that the initially infected are the foot soldiers for something much more calculated. The film has a lot to say about what it means to be human and the division between human and beast, with a depth rare for such a genre movie.

It also offers up an ending (which of course DEoL cannot divulge) both apocalyptic and redemptive, a fiery climax in striking counterpoint to the washed out colour palette of the rest of the film, which concludes with a scene that is arguably more cinematic than plausible - but hey, this is a zombie film. Mention should also go to the immersive soundtrack of the Chilean composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer, which underscores the increasing tension perfectly. Not a masterpiece, but along with the recent Train to Busan, doing something very different with a genre that needed to diversify.

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