Wednesday at the Derby Film Festival: The Girl With All The Gifts

by Elliot Davies

The Girl With All The Gifts Derby Film Festival

The Girl With All The Gifts details a very British apocalypse. It’s unbearably tense, but sweet and tender too; and the ending’s only unutterably bleak if you’re not hungry.

Melanie lives in a dank cell and subsists on a diet of still-writhing maggots. She goes to school like any other child, but her commute’s a little odd: She’s secured into a wheelchair at gunpoint, and wheeled to a big room with about 20 other similarly-secured children, where they’re required to recite the periodic table. But she seems happy enough. And why wouldn’t she? She’s the most advanced specimen of a lifeform that’s never existed before.

Right. Before I get all Sight and Sound magazine on you, know that The Girl With All The Gifts is the sort of film that, on your initial viewing at least, might be more enjoyable if you don’t know much about it. I’m convinced that it’ll bear repeat viewings. But for me, much of the joy was in the slow reveal to this horrible, horrible world, and all who live in it. This is my roundabout way of saying SPOILERS AHEAD. You. Have. Been. Warned.

The Girl With All The Gifts is a zombie film. Sort of. The “zombies” aren’t referred to as “zombies” (they’re referred to as “hungries”), and purists might balk at the use of the term. This is because technically they’re not dead. So technically they’re not “the living dead”. So technically, they’re not “zombies”. They’ve been infected by a fungus, which transforms them into feral biting screaming zombie-like monsters called “hungries.”

And hungries are scary. They snap their jaws with an audible clicking of the teeth that I don’t think I’ve ever heard in a zombie film before. Because they’re infected by a fungus, their faces are covered with various hives and growths. Having feasted, they look horribly sated. And while running zombies are nothing new, it’s disturbing to see them looking so ravenous as they run.

But most disturbing of all? When they’ve eaten, and when there’s nobody around to eat, they just sort of stand there – sunning themselves like plants. Navigating a field of these gently-swaying plant-human things makes for one of the film’s most heart-in-the-mouth tense sequences.

The Girl With All The Gifts Derby Film Festival 2

Just like The Hunger Games was likened to Battle Royale by lazy pundits, The Girl With All The Gifts will inevitably be likened to 28 Days Later. And OK: It’s a sort of zombie film with running sort-of-zombies largely set in a desolate London. But these similarities are superficial. The Girl With All The Gifts tells a completely different story. In fact, it does so many things with its raw materials that it might even be the superior film.

For one thing, 28 Days Later is relentlessly, almost gleefully grim. It seems to revel in the fact that the infected sort-of-zombies are ultimately the least of our heroes’ worries. Much more concerning are the other people who have survived the uprising. It’s not a film about the apocalypse so much as it’s a film about man’s inhumanity to man.

But dark as it is, The Girl With All The Gifts isn’t so pessimistic. In this film, Other People aren’t another force to contend with. Indeed, everyone here is exemplary. All are concerned with doing whatever it takes not just to survive, but also to help. Nobody’s living one day at a time. Everyone’s working towards an end – the survival of humanity as we know it.

But more than that,The Girl With All The Gifts might be the superior film because, ultimately, this isn’t a film about the apocalypse. Or survival. Or brutality. The later films in George Romero’s Living Dead series touch upon the idea that zombification might simply be the next stage of human evolution. The Girl With All The Gifts takes this idea and runs with it, giving us an ending that’s only a downer if you’re not hungry.

The film is full of strong performances. Paddy Considine is fantastic as the grizzled soldier who still has a soft-spot the size of London. Glenn Close is even better as the desperate scientist racing tirelessly for the cure for all mankind. She’s brutal and uncompromising without being cold and inhuman.

Credit is of course due to Gemma Arterton, who plays a strong female protagonist who’s so strong that she doesn’t feel like a Strong Female Protagonist. But really, newcomer Sennia Nanua steals the show as young Melanie. She’s playing an extraordinarily complex role – a lifeform that’s never existed before but which nonetheless looks and acts like a child.

She could have done anything with this role and got away with it. That her Melanie is simultaneously inhuman and endearing is miraculous. She comes across as a perfectly lovable human child with something intangible yet vital missing. And how many actors can you think of who are capable of showing what isn’t there? It’s spellbinding.

She’s the beating heart of the whole film – a walking moral ambiguity who essentially demands that everyone else onscreen – both the characters and the actors – adapts accordingly. Her relationship with Artherton’s Ms. Justineau is touching and tragic. You care what happens to these people.

The Girl With All The Gifts is based on the book by M.R. Carey, who showed up for a Q&A and a book signing just before the screening. I made the signing but not the Q&A. When giving him my book to be signed, I apologised to Carey for having missed the Q&A.

“Then you’re dead to me,” he said.

I wish I’d been witty enough to reply with “I’m not dead, I’m just hungry.” I could have dined out on that story for years!