★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
Orwell meets Romero meets Golding in this apocalyptic tale.
The Girl with All the Gifts is a conventional horror flick that is bookended by offbeat first and third acts. The first act, for me, is the most intriguing, as director Colm McCarthy very slowly reveals his cards of this story. It opens with a young girl, Melanie (Sennia Nauna), patiently waiting in her prison cell to be escorted to her daily classes. She is unflinchingly chipper and polite with the very stressed out soldiers who strap her into her wheelchair and transport her to her lessons. She arrives in a room full of kids just like her, also wheeled in, and none of the students seem particularly distressed for their incarceration. The teacher, Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton) clearly adores her pupils, and so you have this very strange setup where you know there’s something off, but the story is holding back on the twist. The soldiers in this bunker, led by Sgt. Parks (Paddy Considine) are equally uneasy about the whole situation. It’s all very Orwellian, and I kept anxiously waiting for the reveal.
When the reveal comes, it’s rather stark. The kids, you see, can become ravenous little cannibals. The young actors must have been selected based upon their ability to gnash their teeth and bug their eyes out. Watching the cascade of snapping teeth was jarring and effectively establishes the predicament. Melanie gets escorted from her cell up to Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close), a scientist looking for a cure, and the children are the key to this fungal outbreak, and the time has come for her to try and extract the cure from Melanie. You see, there is a zombie pandemic and these kids are near-zombies… “hungries” in the parlance of this film. I’m not sure why they were trying to educate these mini-hungries, but we’ve established that they are 1. Alive and 2. Very intelligent. Unlike the teaming hordes outside of this military base (Turns out it’s not really a prison).
The second act unleashes the horde, and the base is overrun. All the characters we recognize pile into a military transport and bust through the gate as the soldiers and scientists get eaten or turned into fungoid-zombies. This is where the film feels more conventional. I feel that the third act is like a better version of Romero’s Day of the Dead. The soldiers are less cartoony, the scientists are less dogmatic, and the presence of Sennia Nanua is a revelation. She switches from earnest to feral so convincingly that you’re looking for every little tick that might just set her into primal cannibal mode. Nanua could very well become a big star if she continues this level of performance. The middle of the movie plays like an episode from The Walking Dead, (not a bad thing) with our survivors traveling by foot through a densely packed zombo-London, and doing their best to play it cool and not draw the attention from the hungries. It is well executed, and there are plenty of hold-your-breath moments as they pick their way through the blighted out city.
The final third did not play out the way I expected it to. At a certain point, the film morphed into Lord of the Flies, and I think it pulled me out of the film. What’s with the feral kids? There are also some really dreadfully bad decisions made by some of the characters, particularly given how careful they had been up to this point. It is neither a feel-good ending nor is it a horror gut-punch ending. Oddly, it feels like a little of both. It’s hopeful and dreadful at the same time. You’ll have to see it to fully understand.
The acting, the production values, the beautiful cinematography, the fabulous opening act, and a haunting soundtrack more than makes up for whatever qualms I had for the way the movie ended. It’s a really good zombie flick, and has enough fresh ideas to merit a watch.