The last few years of UK cinema has seen a surge in what I think is a new wave of genre filmmaking, a post-modern, thoughtful strain of films that combine various genres with more intellectual concerns. The works of Ben Wheatley and Peter Strickland are at the forefront, the former’s Kill List draining its folksy Wicker Man-horror stylings from anxieties over how much we control our own decisions and moral compasses, whilst the latter’s Duke of Burgundy takes 70s style soft-core erotic cinema and applies it to a dissection of a strained relationship. Elsewhere, you can find Jonathan Glazer taking science-fiction to the post-industrial landscapes of Glasgow with Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin, and Shane Meadows has occasionally ventured into mixing pulp and social realism in this way too with Dead Man’s Shoes in particular. Although they’re Irish, the McDonagh brothers arguably suit this strain as well with releases like In Bruges and Calvary. There’s admittedly a huge variety between these films in form and intent, but they taste and smell similar. They’re mostly rooted in pulpy “lowbrow” material with generic conventions, but they’ve all tried to craft something akin to a statement in their recasting of said material.
The Girl With All the Gifts fits into this strain. It’s a zombie film, drawing on a longer tradition of zombie and dystopian cinema as well as science-fiction, but its aspirations run far deeper than your standard case of brain-eaters run amok. Director Colm Molm and screenwriter Mike Carey (adapting his own bestselling book of the same name) have learned well from the feet of George Romero: the racial subtext of his iconic Night of the Living Dead is present here, especially given the casting of the brilliant Sennia Nanua in the lead role as Melanie, a young girl infected with a type of fungus that turns most adults into “hungries” of the 28 Days Later variety, all rage and full-pelt speed. However, as the film explains later, in children and young people, the virus does not quite take full hold. Exposed to uninfected flesh, they revert to gnashing fury, but otherwise they behave as children do. We are introduced to Melanie inside a prison cell, where soldiers open the door, guns pointed, and strap the girl into a restrained wheelchair, whereupon they’re taken into a classroom and given lessons by Helen (Gemma Arterton). In the midst of a military complex, with Sgt. Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine in typically commanding form) ensuring that all of his charges are routinely kept in check, one begins to get the sense of the virus as a form of social exclusion.
Eventually of course, the military base falls, and the remaining survivors along with Melanie have to go on a cross-country journey to find another safe base. Melanie’s importance goes beyond her just being sentient. Aside from being extremely intelligent and perceptive, she is considered by Dr. Caroline (Glenn Close) to be crucial to the synthesis of a vaccine for the remaining members of the human race, and her status as a “hungry” already means she is ignored by her fellow zombies enabling her to scout ahead.
Heart and soul of the film, Melanie’s status as an outsider—not only compared to her human companions but to other mindless hungries (she is far more intelligent than other infected children)—is reinforced by the decision to make her a protagonist of colour with compassion and intelligence battling with ignorance, fear, and dilapidation, reinforcing the film’s metaphors about social exclusion. Melanie has to deal with abusive language by the soldiers looking after her and a steadfast refusal to acknowledge her inherent humanity, with Dr. Caroline describing her behaviour as an example of “excellent mimicry”.
In applying the zombie tropes this way, The Girl With All the Gifts explicitly sharpens its blades against an increasingly xenophobic, idiotic Britain led by authoritarian control freaks, and its timing could not be more apt. Certainly, the idea of a Britain overtaken by a mutant fungus in which the streets become depopulated and the steel-and-glass capitalist monstrosities of London’s skyline become infested with its grimy mucus seems quite glamorous given the current state of the nation. The film suggests that the fungal virus may well be a sign of progress, a necessary step forward for human evolution. As the Britain depicted within is one without Nigel Farage and Theresa May, it almost certainly is exactly that.
Depending on how you view the film, you might regard The Girl With All the Gifts as a film that paints humanity as doomed, ready to cannibalise and disappear under itself, or as a film that portrays the possibilities, however slim, of progress, towards a new thought process.
Of course, none of this would work if the film wasn’t built with supreme craft. On a budget of just £4 million (!), Colm McCarthy wrings every last drop out of the film’s visual strengths. The sight of fungal-strewn London is eerily bleak, as is the ash-like effects of the fungal pods releasing their spore. There are occasional nods to the post-apocalyptic Britain seen in Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece Children of Men, and there is an encounter with a group of feral (but just about communicative) children that quite clearly resembles Lord of the Flies.
The performances too are brilliant; the experienced hands of Glenn Close and Paddy Considine are as excellent as one would expect, and Gemma Arterton exudes humanity and a certain anxious naivety as Melanie’s teacher (and the one character who most often defends her rights). However it’s Sennia Nanua who really resounds. She chooses to play Melanie as an intensely curious and open young woman, wise beyond her years, but not yet socially aware enough to understand how she is perceived by those around her, only just beginning to internalise the foul language directed her way. It’s an incredibly difficult balance to achieve, but the fact that Nanua, only 12, pulls it off is nothing short of a miracle. I’ve barely even mentioned the soundtrack by Cristo (whose previous credits include Channel 4’s Utopia), a tingling, industrial electronic ripple that echoes throughout the film, bringing to mind Mica Levi’s work on Under the Skin.
The Girl With All the Gifts is a fantastic science-fiction film. It’s a fantastic zombie film. It’s a fantastic film. Go see it. It’s one of the highlights of the year.