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Film Review: The Girl With All The Gifts


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The Girl With All The Gifts joins the ranks of 2016 releases that portray the maturation of children kept in literal and figurative isolation.

In Room, Jacob Tremblay’s Jack escapes from a shed that formed his entire world, to discover the vast complexities of the real one. The French film Mustang depicts five Turkish girls who are locked in their home after some innocent frolicking with boys lands them in trouble. This month’s Captain Fantastic is about the adjustments that a family of six children raised in the wilderness have to make when they venture out into commercial America to attend a funeral. The Girl With All The Gifts takes this idea of growth, and rebellion against seclusion, and adds the caveat “but with zombies.”

Melanie (Sennia Nanua) is one of several children kept in cells within a military facility. Every day, she and the others are strapped down at gunpoint and wheeled into classes by the intimidating Sergeant Parks (Paddy Considine), taught by the lovely Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton). They’re monitored by lead scientist Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close). 

When the base is attacked by a horde of “hungries”, Melanie saves Miss Justineau, and together, with Dr. Caldwell, Sergeant Parks, and Privates Dillon and Gallagher (Anthony Welsh and Fisayo Akinade), they must survive the journey to safety in the south at Beacon.

There are few zombie films or TV shows of the 21st century that don’t owe something to George A. Romero, yet even fewer use the zombies (as blank a canvas for metaphor as there ever was) to say interesting things. The last was 2013’s Warm Bodies. Here, the incredibly tense sequences are equally inspired by the fast moving infected of 28 Days Later, as they are Romero’s work.

The opening twenty minutes at the base/research facility has the ring of Day of the Dead’s premise, and a gut-wrenchingly tense move through a shopping arcade full of dormant hungries, is the film’s own tribute to Dawn Of The Dead. But these adult zombies aren’t so much actual metaphor, as they are window dressing for the Melanie centric one, and the aforementioned action.  

In a year of great child performances, Sennia Nanua’s as Melanie truly stands out. From the heavy-handed opening to the lyrical ending, the film sees Melanie on an arc of discovery, of rebellion, and of simply growing up. Which proves to be quite complicated.

A lot of this is nearly untraceably drawn, and it’s all too easy to miss the elements that signal what Melanie’s going through. For instance, her loving treatment of a picture of a kitten in the first scene is a stark contrast to how Melanie reacts to a cat that she discovers in the outside world. But these parallel events don’t feel connected. They’re more like dramatic or comedic inserts into other sequences.

The character could easily fall flat for that, if not for Nanua. She’s compelling, even as the goody-two-shoes-know-it-all at the start. Her every look to Miss Justineau brims with longing and love, and she’s confident interacting with the Sergeant who makes her's and her classmates’ lives so joyless. When Melanie displays bravery, Nanua makes it seem instinctive in a way that’s both youthful and mature beyond her years. And when she’s fierce, she rides the line between genuinely unnerving and actually ridiculous, toying with expectations.

The rest of the cast are entirely qualified, and they certainly have their moments. Considine could make the Child Catcher loveable, with his weary anger lightened by an immensely dry wit. Close meanwhile, has to handle the very difficult task of making reams of exposition about a virus compelling, and although the task is obvious at times, there’s always a cold patience behind her eyes, and a steel in her delivery, that makes her watchable. Like Considine, she’s world-weary; certainly thematically appropriate, but the cruelty and the vindictive anger of Caldwell in the book doesn’t come across.

Arterton’s Justineau similarly suffers from adaptation inferiority (screenwriter Mike Carey is adapting his own novel of the same name). One seemingly incomplete scene robs her performance of the book’s dimensional character. “I’m not a good person” she says, despite there being no indication, in words or actions, of why she thinks that. It’s truly a shame, because Arterton’s great at almost every turn. She has almost no arc, as she loves Melanie from the beginning, at odds with the judgements of her peers. But she brings a deeply felt pain and defiance to her as much as affection.

There are moments of beauty and of terror here, nearly all of which have Nanua at the centre. But the inventive take on the zombie is hard to see past the more unimaginative choices. Sometimes it falls prey to horror cliché – we all know the one about the black guy dying before anyone else, but in The Girl With All The Gifts there are two, so we get to wonder which one bites it first.

On top of that, there’s an immensely clunky side to the cinematography and soundtrack. There are so many moments of all-caps “LOUD NOISES”, that it at first feels like Brick Tamland himself was in the editing room. These heavily stylised moments simply don’t gel with the blandly militaristic production design, apparently fanatically dedicated to dragging the heady and weird sci-fi concept into “gritty realism”. Apart from a genuinely riveting and sneaky One-r, focusing on Melanie’s actions at the centre of the facility’s destruction, it’s not until they leave the base that McCarthy appears to relax his direction, and it improves significantly for it.

The Girl With All The Gifts has a barely allegorical take on the idea that children are terrifying, as much because they are weirdly incomplete as because they are the inevitable future. That’s good - there’s definitely something to be said for a film as pacy and tense as this one, that manages to find a new angle on the most overused monster of the 21st century.

It can’t be stressed enough either how good Nanua is in the film – even when she’s playing notes that aren’t immediately likeable, she brings Melanie to life, so that she’s a truly bright and multi-coloured character in a film that is all too often relentlessly drab, and a little incomplete.

The Girl With All The Gifts is released in the UK this Friday. 

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