On paper, The Girl With All the Gifts must have seemed like a sure-fire hit movie. It was based on a highly acclaimed, best selling novel by M.R. (Mike) Carey, and it was set squarely in the horror subgenre that is arguably the most popular and recognized in pop culture: the post-apocalyptic world of zombies. Surely this was the kind of material that would get a big-budget Hollywood adaptation, right?
Not quite. The Girl With All the Gifts was inexplicably never picked up by a major studio, even though the screenplay (which Carey wrote himself) made it to the 2014 Brit List, an industry survey (like the Black List in the US) of the best unproduced screenplays in British film. The movie ended up getting funded by the non-profits arts organization Creative England and the British Film Institute to the tune of £4 million -- or just around $5.3 million American dollars.
The film was shot in England, in the West Midlands, by director Colm McCarthy -- making just his second feature after an extensive career in TV -- and stars Gemma Arterton, Glenn Close, Paddy Considine and, in a breakout performance, newcomer Sennia Nanua. She plays Melanie, one of a second generation of zombie children (who ate their way out of their infected mothers' wombs) that possess all the attributes of "hungries" (as they are called in the story) yet also retain the power to think, speak and learn.
The story is set after the initial zombie apocalypse has happened (brought about by a fungal infection) and opens in a military installation where second generation hungries are being experimented upon by Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Close), who is desperate to find a cure for their affliction. Arterton plays Helen Justineau, who is tasked with teaching the children and comes to see them as people, forging an especially close relationship with the whipsmart and empathetic Melanie.
When the base is overrun by a massive wave of zombies, Helen, Dr. Caldwell and Melanie escape in the company of Sergeant Eddie Parks (Considine) and a handful of soldiers. They want Melanie shot on sight, but Helen protects her and Caldwell wants her keep "alive" (as it were) so she can use her to continue to seek an antidote to the plague. When the small band of survivors reaches London, however, they discover that the plague has shifted into a new form and that the complete extinction of humankind may be imminent.
The Girl With All the Gifts leverages some well-worn devices of the genre -- the plague wiping out civilization, the fast-moving zombies overrunning everything, the military vs. science conflict -- and uses them in the service of a tale that feels fresh thanks to its exceptionally well-developed characters, its elegant plotting and the concept that the plague is possibly a next step in human evolution, as terrifying as that might be.
The characters of Melanie and Helen are sharply drawn, with Nanua excellent as a child who is both innocent and utterly dangerous and Arterton projecting compassion and humanity. Even the more traditional characters played by Considine and Close are given more than the usual one-dimensional treatment -- a relative rarity in the horror space to this day.
Colm McCarthy directs the film without a whole lot of flair but a lot of efficiency, and even with some sketchy CG and his budget limitations, he moves the story along cleanly and gives the film verve and polish. The Girl With All the Gifts tells a complete and satisfying story, while giving us characters we care about, moments of terror and eerie atmosphere and a conclusion that is earned honestly and in keeping with the two hours of story that has come beforehand.
What's unfortunate about all this is that the movie has not been easy to find and see. Warner Bros. Pictures distributed the movie in the U.K. -- where it did not fare exceptionally well at the box office -- yet here in the U.S. it was picked up by the relatively tiny Saban Films, which gave it a small theatrical run before it went straight to on-demand and streaming services. You can watch it on Amazon Prime here; Netflix is only carrying it on DVD at the moment.
The Girl With All the Gifts deserves a wider audience, and hopefully it will find it in the future. Unless, of course, the future it portrays comes true...