How far are we willing to go to save our species? That’s a question posed near the start of The Girl with All the Gifts, a variant strain of zombie movie adapted from the M.R. Carey novel of the same name. In a cold concrete bunker somewhere in the UK, the equally icy Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close) is working to find a cure for an infectious disease that has swept the globe: a form of fungus which turns its human hosts into Hungries – fast-moving flesh-eaters in the 28 Days Later mode.
The greater part of the bunker appears to be a prison, each cell containing a single, seemingly ordinary child. Melanie (Sennia Nanua) is the smartest of them all; smart enough that she can reel off elements on the periodic table without pausing for thought. But like the other children, Melanie also has a hidden, darker side; if an ordinary human gets too close, her hunger for flesh emerges with a flash of bared teeth. As a result, Sgt. Parks (Paddy Considine) keeps these mysterious half-breeds under lock and key, and when they’re brought out for daily school lessons with teacher Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton), they’re strapped into modified wheelchairs like tiny Hannibal Lecters.
Dr. Caldwell thinks that, by experimenting on her prisoners, she can find a vaccine for the epidemic raging outside the compound. Like Sgt. Parks, Dr. Caldwell believes the children are sub-human, and that Melanie’s wide-eyed politeness is some kind of parrot-like imitated response. Miss Justineau is the only person in the place who has any obvious empathy for her young charges, gnashing teeth or no gnashing teeth.
Directed by Colm McCarthy, previously best known for his TV work on such hit shows as Doctor Who and Peaky Blinders, brings an immediate sense of unease to the movie’s opening act. Together with Carey, who adapts his own novel, McCarthy moves at a deliberate pace, teasing at bursts of violence but repeatedly holding back; from the opening scene, The Girl with All the Gifts establishes itself as something more restrained and thoughtful than your garden-variety zombie flick. This is the kind of movie that trusts its audience to glean bits of information through brief exchanges rather than great slabs of exposition, and the sense of gradual discovery is one of its strongest assets.
The direction feels less precise as the film broadens its canvas later on. Some obvious digital matte shots and somewhat sketchy makeup effects betray the ultra-low £4m budget, and McCarthy’s set-pieces lack the bite and ferocity of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later sequences, or even Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s less commonly-discussed 28 Weeks Later.
What The Girl with All the Gifts does have going for it, however, is an excellent cast. Glenn Close, in particular, impresses in a role that might at first glance appear to be a stock, mad scientist-type villain. Close gives Caldwell an icy resolve, but also an intelligence and curiosity which makes her both human and oddly admirable. One of the film’s most electrifying scenes comprises little more than Close sitting in a chair, telling a story; it’s testament to Close’s skill and Carey’s writing that something so hypnotic can be produced from something so simple.
The rest of the leading cast are effective too, from Arterton’s haunted school teacher to Paddy Considine’s wryly amusing soldier. Newcomer Sennia Nanua also impresses as Melanie – a smart young innocent who’s trying to keep a lid on her flesh-eating impulses.
Again, like 28 Days Later, The Girl with All the Gifts taps into a rich history of apocalyptic narratives – John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, and JG Ballard’s The Drowned World. Beneath the survival horror lies a story not only about an existing species fighting against the emergence of a new one, but also something even more relevant: a battle of wits between one generation and another. Dr. Caldwell has managed to harden her heart to such a degree that she’s willing to vivisect children to find a cure; Melanie, ultimately, is just a child pleading for her right to exist.
With the costs of education, house prices, rent and even the future of the environment overwhelmingly controlled by an increasingly self-serving, wealthy older generation, this underlying theme feels particularly right for its time. Maybe this is why the scenes between the doctor and her test subject are the film’s most provocative.
The aforementioned budgetary constraints, a monotonous soundtrack by Cristobal Tapia de Veer (who scored TV’s Utopia) and a few irksome character decisions knock The Girl with All the Gifts back a little. But through all the negatives, the strength of the acting and writing still shine through; among a legion low-budget films where shuffling ghouls are shot in the head, The Girl with All the Gifts stands apart as a rare creature: a zombie film with real intelligence.
The Girl with All the Gifts is out in UK cinemas on the Sept. 23. No U.S. release date has yet been announced.