Director: Colm McCarthy
Cast: Sennia Nanua, Gemma Arterton, Paddy Considine, Glenn Close
Plot: The world is left savaged by a fungal disease, turning humanity into flesh craving zombies. A research group investigate why a group of children are immune.
A lot of directors, including myself, are often faced with the toughest question in the film-making profession: do we make a good movie or a successful movie? Of course, there is a little more depth to the question than that, but the core principle remains the same. Do you take your movie down a more commercial route (ie: add a pretty love interest that brings little to the story but caters to an audience’s needs), or try some interesting that might dissuade people from watching at the cinemas? The best current example of this question is the casting of white actors in Asian roles. The sad truth is that few Asian actors have the weight to draw audiences to the cinemas, whereas white Hollywood actors like Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansen do. This is a strong example of a movie having to choose to do the interesting and proper thing “cast an Asian actor” or conform to expectations that will help the movie reach financial success. This review won’t question the answer to this argument (mainly because I struggle with it daily in my own film-making), but it is important to know the context of The Girl With All The Gifts. Because Colm McCarthy has made a film that refuses to conform to what we expect from a zombie film. It tanked at the box office, making only half of its 5 million budget back, but the end result is a refreshingly original piece of story-telling. No, this is not a successful movie, but it is a very good one…
Take the casting for instance. McCarthy does not cast anyone you would ever expect to see in a zombie horror film. There are no muscular action heroes at play here, nor anyone who has really held a Hollywood lead before (with the exception of a rare occasion where puppies were about to be skinned). Paddy Considine enjoys the kind of character who usually only gets when he writes it for himself, a gruff military type who eventually caves into being a nice guy. Gemma Arterton is excellent as the kind-hearted teacher, torn apart by the apocalypse setting. It is a relief that she is finally getting these strong roles, compared to the vapid parts she was lumped with five years ago. Best of the lot is Glenn Close, as a scientist, able to do the right thing but at what cost? Close plays the part behind flickering eyes, the kind of character who constantly wears a poker face. You never know what she is thinking, but Close plays the role with subtle micro-expressions that lets the audience know that she is always thinking. No, none of these actors would have expected a call to be in a zombie action film, but here they are, and a fine job they do as well. Another instance of good over expected is McCarthy refusing to kill off his best characters until the final act. There are moments where you almost anticipate a shock death, because any other horror movie would have done it. But McCarthy is far too interested in the strong character interplay to allow any of his precious parts clock out before they have finished delivering their arc. As a result, while there is a slight flat feeling, as there aren’t many grotesque deaths that the genre usually promises (although we are not devoid of this staple – one death is particularly gruesome), the audience, instead, get some terrific character arcs that transcend the genre. The only other time characters hit this level of depth in a zombie story, they had a serial television format to hit these marks. The other main form of McCarthy breaking the imagined rules of a zombie film is making this true hero, a young black girl, no older than ten. Sennia Nanua is phenomenal here, as the young girl at the centre of this story. She is introduced as a captive, always restrained and treated by her peers with caution. The why of their treatment of the young girl, always smiling, polite to her captors and eager to study at the prison’s education centre, is fairly easy to predict given the subject matter. McCarthy gets this twist out of the way early to get his film rolling, but it does give Nanua material to set in stone a career which will hopefully keep her busy for a long period of time. Several scenes as Nanua’s character, Melanie, adjusts to her life in an apocalypse setting boast moments that help the young actress shine.
The movie always has total control of its atmosphere. McCarthy likes to keep his shots fluid and concise, only cutting when he wants to. While the film is clearly shot with a strict budget in mind, there are certain moments where he indulges into a true zombie flick. The first breakout with the zombies sees the camera hold the shot as long as possible, military soldiers getting ripped to shreds, a young Melanie lost in a sea of bloody violence. Other moments simply hold the shot as characters wander deserted hospital corridors or deliver softly-spoken monologues. Cutting hurts the emotional resonance, theorises McCarthy, and his movie is all the better for his methods. The middle acts sees McCarthy get as generically zombie as his film is willing to go, which does take away some of the staying power of The Girl With All The Gifts, but we do get the movie’s strongest scene, where the survivors try to navigate a horde by moving really slowly. The scene climaxes with a gruesome piece of imagery involving a baby. Even when McCarthy is sticking to what the audience expects, he finds new material to mine from the moments. The ending is anything but typical zombie material, as the heroes find evidence to suggest a new stage of the fungal disease (don’t worry, it’s more clever than a ‘boss zombie’). It removes the closest thing to a traditional zombie we have and replaces it with a sense of eerie isolation. If you are going to fall out with this movie, it will likely be the ending which decides to hit us with an unorthodox fight scene and an ending which few other directors would have gone for. Yes, it might leave a sour taste in the mouth, and a few characters get demises that feel more like an afterthought than a high point in the narrative, but you must appreciate the originality bleeding through every inch of this film. Statistically speaking, it is likely you missed it at the cinema, but it is worth tracking down on DVD now. A British zombie movie that makes you think… This is no Danny Boyle movie, but it is the closest thing we’ve had in quite a few years.
Final Verdict: Pushing genre expectations pretty much consistently, McCarthy creates the most original zombie flick we’ve had in a long time. A thought-provoking, strong piece.