Film Review: ‘The Girl With All the Gifts’

The Girl With All the Gifts
Courtesy of Saban Films

A tired attempt to board the zombie bandwagon, this time featuring a child zombie anomaly whose brain may hold the key to saving the world.

Why is it that good actors in career stasis so often wind up in zombie films? No one reading the outline for “The Girl With All the Gifts” could really have come away thinking, “This will break the mold,” though given the long list of executive producers, the script must have passed through plenty of hands. Colorlessly directed by Colm McCarthy in his feature debut, this overlong contribution to the genre is set in the not-too-distant future, when a fungus has turned most everyone into brain-dead “Hungries” feasting on flesh and blood. The film’s catch is that all attention is on a little girl Hungry whose brain somehow seems perfectly fine. Maybe the premise seemed marginally original at one time, but few outside teen audiences will think Mike Carey’s adaptation of his own novel is anything more than another tired attempt to board the zombie bandwagon.

Don’t expect subtext or metaphor, because there’s not a drop on screen, though at least bits of dialogue are meant to be funny (far more amusing are lines apparently written in dead earnest). The focus is on 10-year-old Melanie (bright, appealing newcomer Sennia Nanua), first seen in a prison cell hiding a photo of a kitten before being collected by a couple of gun-toting soldiers. She’s strapped to a wheelchair and brought with other children to a classroom, where severe Dr. Jean Selkirk (Anamaria Marinca) is teaching them the periodic table.

Audiences are meant to be caught off-guard: Why are these sweet kids being treated like dangerous criminals? Since this is a zombie movie, the answer is far more obvious than the more pertinent question of why is the military instructing zombie kiddies about the chemical elements? It must be so that a kindly teacher can be introduced, in the form of sensitive Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton, her eyes meaningfully glistening with emotion). Melanie is the apple of her eye, and who can blame her: the exceptionally well-mannered little girl is warmth personified. What a contrast to cold Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close), her frozen expression crowned with a buzz cut. The bad doctor is just itching to wield a scalpel on poor Melanie so she can synthesize something in the child’s brain and create an antidote that will stop the fungal origin of the Hungries.

All the children being held in the military installation are anomalies: most Hungries are inactive until they get a whiff of flesh and blood, when they turn into mindless munching machines, but Melanie and her pals seem perfectly normal except when the smell of bodily fluids makes them ravenous zombies. Dr. Caldwell is on the brink of understanding why they have “partial immunity to the Hungry pathogen,” but then the regular Hungries attack the base, killing most everyone there.

Luckily, Sgt. Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine) together with a couple of privates (Fisayo Akinade, Anthony Welsh) manage to escape with Dr. Caldwell, Helen, and the precious Melanie, possible key to saving the world. The remainder of the film – and there’s an awful lot that remains – is meant to take place in a destroyed London, unexcitedly evoked through a few digital effects and location shooting in abandoned buildings (did Barclays or Mercedes-Benz pay for product placement?). The expected conflicts play out: kind Helen wants to save Melanie, cold-hearted Caldwell wants to open her brain, and Sgt. Parks wants to keep everyone alive.

The script is full of the usual banalities disguised as philosophical conversations, but none of it tries for even the remotest hint of metaphor, and a “Lord of the Flies”-style subplot plays like something out of an episode from the original “Star Trek” (but not in a good way). At least Close attacks her scenes with gusto – no one can say it’s not a committed performance. Fortunately, newcomer Nanua conveys genuine charm, which will be put to better use in another vehicle.

Director McCarthy does little visually that would generate a sense of fear in any viewer, and there’s nothing that will generate so much as a startled jump. A few curse words together with some zombie gobbles take the film outside the children’s market, making it hard to guess the target audience. The repetitive, droning music is meant to build tension though mostly just calls attention to itself.

Film Review: 'The Girl With All the Gifts'

Reviewed at Locarno Film Festival (Piazza Grande – opener), August 3, 2016. Running time: 110 MIN.

Production

(UK) A BFI, Creative England presentation, Warner Bros. Pictures presentation of a Poison Chef production. (International sales: Altitude Film Sales, London.) Producers: Camille Gatin, Angus Lamont. Executive producers: Lizzie Francke, Ben Roberts, Richard Holmes, Christopher Moll, Will Clarke, Andy Mayson, Mike Runagall.

Crew

Director: Colm McCarthy. Writer: Mike Carey, based on his book. Camera (color): Simon Dennis. Editor: Matthew Cannings.

With

Gemma Arterton, Paddy Considine, Glenn Close, Sennia Nanua, Anamaria Marinca, Fisayo Akinade, Anthony Welsh, Dominique Tipper.  

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  1. Nick says:

    Wow, a US reviewer putting their boot in on a British film as it doesn’t have enough fist pumping, saluting or over the top dramatic speeches in it. Shock. And yawn.

  2. Carruthers says:

    I’ll defend the reviewer here as I completely agree with everything he says. I’m baffled about the general positivity surrounding this film. I watched it after Mark Kermode recommended it, and I was stunned at just how bad it was. The acting is sixth form am-dram standard. The plot is farcical without it having the benefit of being a comedy such as Shaun of The Dead. The ending and the scene where she faces off against the “mad max tribe of children” will both stick out as some the most chuckle inducing scenes I have ever watched. If you’re in doubt just watch the latter on youtube, there are no spoilers in that scene and you’ll see what I mean. Unfortunately the film was never intending you to laugh at it. It’s a shame as the first 15 minutes or so promised so much more.

  3. Mark says:

    I am at a loss for words after reading this “review.” Its author clearly did not see the same film that I saw. It is actually an intelligent film, chilling rather than “scary,” and the child lead is able to carry the film quite well.

  4. oz says:

    The movie was great. This review … not so much. Can it even be called a review? More than half of it was just a synopsis.

  5. tooms1 says:

    Clearly Jay was having a bad day. “Maybe the premise seemed marginally original at one time” betrays the pretentious author’s bias on this one.

  6. Jessica says:

    I feel quite sorry for this critique. Such a hate filled review with little merit to its words that I can only hope its author is feeling a little less sorry for themselves than when they were writing it.

  7. Hannah says:

    Jay Weissberg couldn’t review a movie to save himself. Tired, bored and obviously bloated, he is a failed script writer that has been shunned once too often and is now taking it upon himself to write scathing reviews of others work in the hopes of inflating his ego. Yawn …

  8. tiggyem says:

    I haven’t seen this film, but from the catty cavalcade of smack talk, it sounds as though this reviewer was set to anti-genre snobby art house beast mode. This seriously doesn’t sound like the film depicted in the trailer, which suggests that either the distributor is also a great packager, or Mr Weissberg just didn’t geddit. Can we have reviews that are more than a sustained diss?

  9. Alan Mills says:

    Did this reviewer see this film? Some questions/comments. This is the director’s second feature. not his first. Where are all these zombie films with famous actors? Not a teenage horror movie at all

  10. Jan Berlin says:

    What? I must have seen a completely different film. The Girl with all the Gifts is smart and very entertaining, the conclusion is quite original and not expected. It is beautifully shot and the score is creating tension without doing too much. Sure, it contains some familiar elements of the genre, but all in all Girl is a zombie film with brains and humour. Maybe you just didn’t get it?

    • EA says:

      I have to agree with the previous comments. I just caught this on Amazon Prime and enjoyed it so much that I thought I’d see what the critics had to say… I thought this was a very intelligent, eerie, well-paced post-apocalyptic thriller providing a nice twist on the zombie genre. And the young child star is just terrific.

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