With its sense-deprived fungus zombies, cities retaken by nature, and young girl at the centre who might be the key to reversing the apocalypse, The Girl With all the Gifts can’t help but feel quite a lot like a film version of the superb 2013 videogame, The Last of Us. That’s no bad comparison to have drawn, despite the generally dim view of the story quality of games, as Last of Us was an unbearably tense and desperately sad look at the apocalypse, qualities shared by Colm McCarthy’s adaptation of the novel by Mike Carey (who is also on script duties here).
McCarthy is best known for his work on highly cinematic TV shows like Ripper Street, Sherlock, and Peaky Blinders, and he clearly relishes the chance to work with a feature film budget. He stages the zombie action with the panache of a director with access to a lot more money than he actually has, with showdowns between soldiers and hordes of ‘hungries’ suitably chaotic and gruesome. McCarthy manages to corral loads of extras into each key zombie scene, convincingly selling us on the idea that the world has gone entirely to hell, even though the film’s scope is relatively limited.
The eponymous girl is Melanie (Sennia Nenua), ‘gifted’ in that she has both the ‘hungry’ virus and conventional human intelligence. One of quite a few kids with this mixed blessing, Melanie is by far the smartest, building up a genuine relationship with her teacher, Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton), at the special military site where she’s held. Miss Justineau feels that the children, despite some flesh-eating instincts, are genuinely human, and wants to teach them through kindness. On the other hand, base commander Sergeant Parks (Paddy Considine) advocates nothing but the harshest discipline, seeing nothing more than monsters. This conflict fuels much of the first third of the film, which, despite being set in a zombie apocalypse, is a genuinely affecting study of how teachers and their students can impact one another’s lives.
Meanwhile, the quest for a vaccine to the virus continues, headed up by Dr Caldwell (Glenn Close), who wants to cut Melanie open for access to her unique brain. She almost gets her wish before the base is overrun, forcing a small band of survivors to head out in search of a safe zone. Led by Parks, who grudgingly grows to recognise the resourcefulness and humanity of Melanie, the team (also including Justineau and Caldwell) first makes its way to London for a supply run, where they find themselves beset on all sides by tens of thousands of undead.
A sequence in which the survivors carefully pick their way through a crowd of hungries (their primary sense is smell, which the humans have a gel to block) is heart-in-mouth stuff. Not only can the infected rip people to pieces, but their virus is far faster acting than in most other zombie films, turning allies into deadly enemies in around 40 seconds. McCarthy and Carey show early on that they have no problem brutally killing off characters we’ve got to know and, bar one scene where the decision making is so poor that it’s unintentionally comic, the tension is maintained throughout. Initially, the human to zombie transformation looks a little silly, but once you’ve seen the damage they can do, this change becomes more and more terrifying.
Sennia Nenua is a fantastic discovery as Melanie, absolutely nailing both the precocious child and flesh hungry monster sides of her character’s personality. It’s a tough role that requires plenty of commitment and physical skill, and Nenua pulls it off with aplomb, more than holding her own with the troupe of experienced talent alongside her.
Considine turns in a reliably nuanced and likable performance as Parks, slowly revealing an emotional depth to the gruff military man. He’s smartly cast, too; I can’t think of many other actors who so effortlessly seem like someone to depend on in a crisis. Arterton, in one of her best roles to date, does a great job adding layers to a character who could very easily fallen into the mould of boringly perfect. Both of them do a great job capturing the weary desperation of people living in a world where the only hope comes from a scheme that involves killing and dissecting children, and Nenua’s more innocent outlook is a refreshing counterpoint.
Perhaps the film’s real coup, though, is its treatment of Dr Caldwell. Yes, she’s obsessive and lacks empathy, two sure signs of an evil cinematic scientist, but though her methods seem hideous to Melanie and those who’ve grown to care about her, the film doesn’t disguise the fact that she’s very much serving the greater good. Glenn Close hints at fraying sanity as the story progresses and Caldwell’s injuries start to get the better of her, but never descends into pantomime villainy. The Girl With all the Gifts is a boldly bleak film that provides no easy answers, and in introducing Sennia Nenua has done a great service to the future of the British acting scene.