Time: the future, but maybe not that far ahead. Place: England; London, Birmingham and places in between. Life: Distinctly not as we know it. A fungal infection beyond the scope of Daktacort has zombified the populace, turning the average man on the street into a Hungry. Indeed, that average man on the street remains exactly where he was at the time he was infected – on the street; and one of the most chilling images of this brilliant film is the sight of them all, swaying gently in the breeze in an abandoned shopping centre like the most bizarre crop choice a deranged urban farmer could ever have envisaged. They are the decayed product of a decayed environment, where a dilapidated M&S Simply Food outlet becomes a backdrop for death and disease rather than for promoting its aspirational groceries. Hungries just stand and sway, inanimate; they do nothing, unless something fleshy comes within their orbit, in which case their senses start to activate and their taste buds start to salivate; and then they go hell for leather for whatever it is that has aroused their desire. Teeth jammering for food like human machetes, it’s not long till that living creature is but a husk.
Only one thing can save the dribs and drabs of humanity that have survived the infection, and who inhabit a military camp/prison school/research laboratory somewhere in the Home Counties, and that’s the possibility of a vaccine, being perfected by Dr Caldwell. And what organic tissue might be the source of this vaccine? The brains of the Hungry children, who have no idea they are not just regular kids; they just wait for the enjoyable 9 till 5 lessons of the lovely Miss Justineau, and accept their regimented and isolated 5 till 9 as part of ordinary life. And there’s one particularly intelligent, polite and loving kid – Melanie. She lives to please Miss Justineau – just as you would if she was your teacher. Melanie’s compliant and obedient with the soldiers; she respects and assists Dr Caldwell wherever she can; but she also recognises the moment when the balance of power swings in her favour.
OK, I think this is the moment when I step out of review mode and into personal persona. I first met the writer of both the screenplay and the original book, Mike Carey, in December 1977 when we were both hapless teenagers attempting to convince Oxford University during their rigorous interview process, that we were worth a punt, if you’ll pardon the expression. Come October 1978, on arrival for the first term to read for a BA in English Language and Literature, we both discovered that we’d pulled sufficient wool over their eyes to get an offer. Within days of meeting again we became the bestest of best friends, and that’s been a friendship that has endured at full blast to this very day. There’s also a side issue that for the last two days of shooting the film, I was an extra; a blink and you’ll miss me extra, but an extra nonetheless. I may be seen fleeing or munching on dead soldiers in one of the outside scenes at the Beacon camp; and I’m definitely in the trailer! Two long days of endlessly running at USAF Upper Heyford in the summer of 2015; it was sheer agony at the time but now I look back on it with a certain nostalgia. So you may think, gentle reader, that this review cannot possibly be impartial. In response to that I say: if I’d hated the film I would have been in a very tricky situation. But fortunately, both Mrs Chrisparkle and I thought it was just totes amazeballs, and I will be as honest as I always am!
Back into review mode: so this is a zombie film in excelsis. It’s not a genre with which I am particularly au fait; but I know for a fact that these zombies have a class and a style way above those normally found in zombiedom. In his Felix Castor novels, Mike’s own self-confessed favourite character is his zombie with the most unthreatening name ever – Nicky, the red-wine loving, jazz record collecting, but nevertheless putrifying inhabitant of a disused cinema in Walthamstow. One could never accuse Mike of creating a run-of-the-mill zombie. In The Girl with all the Gifts he has devised a complete landscape of these terrifying creations and director Colm McCarthy has done an incredible job in bringing his vision to life, if that’s not an oxymoron. Whether they’re delicately poised in a shopping precinct, with our heroes carefully treading lightly around so as not to disturb them; or whether they’re gnashing viciously at the perimeter fence, rest assured the Hungries won’t leave your mind for a goodly while. And given Mike’s lightness of touch, the film contains just the right number of unexpectedly funny lines, reflecting the irony and sheer ridiculousness of the situation. For example, it takes a full five seconds for Melanie’s response to Justineau’s suggestion that she might like a cat, to sink in.
As a perfect counterpoint to the Hungries, you have the pure, human emotion of the relationships between Melanie and all the adults in her sphere (which is ironic, seeing as Melanie isn’t really human.) Revel in that beautiful simplicity of her thoughts and her motives; her child-like sentence structures; and the innocence with which she repeats the barrack-room terminology of the soldiers. Her presence and her trust soften the hard exteriors of the people around her, such as when you see her sharing stories in friendly chat with Private Gallagher, where before he was merely her military custodian. Somewhere in the emotional spectrum between Melanie and the Hungries is Dr Caldwell, with her emotionless and clinical need to pursue her vaccine research with no care for whom she hurts; but also with that degree of altruism that motivates her – the chance that the world may survive is down to her. Caldwell becomes a character that turns out to be far more complex than one originally imagined on reading the book.
Which takes us nicely on to the performances, and let’s start with Glenn Close as Caldwell, because she really did make you think twice about whether or not she is just a scalpel-happy savage or the potential saviour of the world. Just like with all the film’s stars, director Colm McCarthy has coaxed a superb performance out of Glenn Close. Her Caldwell is tough, no-nonsense, wily, but surprisingly vulnerable; prepared to endanger herself in the cause of science, willing to side-step the rules if it means she can get closer to her personal goals. She treads a beautiful balance between modern hero and medieval torturer and it makes thrillingly uncomfortable viewing.
Paddy Considine puts all his natural authority to great effect as the hard-nosed Sergeant Parks, running the camp with ruthless efficiency, eliminating a wounded comrade with just one shot. His gradual softening towards Melanie is beautifully depicted, as he starts to trust her – or as she starts to manipulate him, your choice. His final scene with its quiet, emotional dignity turned the otherwise cool, calm and collected Mrs C into a blubbering wreck. Fisayo Akinade is a very believable Private Gallagher, all bluster when directly under the influence of his military bosses but revealing a decent level of humanity when Parks hears Melanie refer to him as Kieran – his briefly embarrassed look is a moment to treasure. Annamaria Marinca has a brief but very impactful role as Dr Selkirk, Caldwell’s even-less-friendly assistant. That’s one helluva scary scene.
As Miss Justineau, there’s a wonderful performance from Gemma Arterton, who’s quickly become one of the country’s most talented actors. From the start she’s brimming with emotion, making that really important contrast with the rigorous discipline of the camp. Justineau is much fonder of Melanie than she should ever have allowed herself to become; Miss Arterton soon makes it clear that Melanie is her character’s Achilles heel, and it’s Miss Justineau’s sentimentality (or innate decency?) that sets the ball rolling for the sequence of uncontrollable events that lead to the final conclusion of the story. It’s a superb, very moving performance, and if she doesn’t get nominated for a best actress at the BAFTAs I’ll eat my Ophiocordyceps unilateralis.
Which leads us to the stunning debut performance by Sennia Nanua as Melanie, the Girl herself. The very last person to be auditioned for the role, the creative team have made a great discovery with this young lady. A totally secure, supremely confident performance, full of emotion, a stunning ability to portray both vulnerability and power, and, when it comes to it, a deadly comic delivery!
It’s a thoroughly fantastic film, and I’m not just saying that because it’s written by my mate. The combination of unsettlingly recognisable locations in a post-apocalyptic era, tense and suspenseful story-telling through both script and direction, and a cast that excel themselves in every role, makes this one of the most intelligently exciting films for an age. I couldn’t recommend it more!
If you’d like to read more about Mike Carey the writer, may I respectfully direct you to an interview we did earlier this year about his current book, Fellside; and to another interview a while back as the author of The Dead Sea Deception – under the pseudonym of Adam Blake.