Glenn Close seethes with rage and boils over with pseudoscientific explanations and scraps of much-needed exposition in The Girl With All the Gifts. Unfortunately, the Emmy-winning actress is playing neither the lead nor the villain in a sexagenarian version of the Stieg Larsson universe. Instead, she’s a gloriously teeth-gnashing biologist, hell-bent on finding a vaccine for a zombie plague in what turns out to be an otherwise rather dreary cinematic adaptation of Mike Carey’s eponymous novel.
This unusually splatter-y opening film of the Locarno Film Festival was directed by British TV veteran Colm McCarthy, who has worked on high-profile series including Sherlock, Doctor Who and Syfy’s upcoming Krypton but who here struggles to infuse this zombie tale with even just a hint of sociopolitical subtext or, beyond Close’s derelict-scenery-chewing performance, any sense of life. Besides the gift that is the always seemingly GIF-ready performer, it’s hard to see how this will retain any shelf life after its theatrical bow in the U.K. in September and sometime next year stateside, where Saban picked up the rights. A runaway success like 28 Days Later or The Walking Dead, this is not.
The appeal of zombie stories lies rarely in the undead creatures themselves, since as characters they are bloodthirsty but otherwise intentionally lifeless. They are, however, perfect tools to populate dystopian tales that can teach us something about the world we live in now or might be living in tomorrow, though the lessons normally flow from the predicaments of the human survivors that are fighting the undead. What’s unusual about Carey’s version is that his protagonist is not only a child but a kind of zombie-human hybrid; the titular “girl” is Melanie (newcomer Sennia Nanua), a 10-year-old flesh-eater who is the child of a human and a zombie and who’s become both indiscriminately carnivorous but also, when not feeding, supposedly very intelligent and articulate.
When the film opens, she’s being schooled in a facility much like a prison, where she’s strapped into a chair each morning, Hannibal Lecter-style, in her cell and then wheeled to a windowless classroom. There, she and a small dozen of kids like her are taught by a human, Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton, in the most unflattering pants this side of MC Hammer). The teacher obviously risks being eaten and to protect herself, all the kids are not only strapped in chairs but she and all other humans use a special cream that blocks the sweet smell of their oh-so appetizing flesh.
This setup, based on Carey’s original short story that he later simultaneously expanded into a novel and this screenplay, is promising but already there are some minor issues that foreshadow much bigger problems down the road. Firstly, McCarthy more often seems to apply a generic style to his substance, rather than actually use a stylistic choice to help suggest or demonstrate something about his story and characters. Zooms, shifting focus and a soundscape overflowing with percussion, totemic chants and sound effects don’t automatically ratchet up the tension; an audience’s investment in characters and their predicament needs to be established first for that to work (style only becomes a powerful tool if it is used to expand on feelings and sensations the audience already has).
This brings us to the film’s major flaw: Though Melanie is the titular protagonist, the pic never really gets into her head. She does ask a lot of questions and has a modicum of feeling for Miss Justineau, telling her to move away in time before she gets the jaw-dislocating attacks that precede one of the zombies’ feeding frenzies. But beyond that, it’s hard to see what either her true objectives or goals are or how she feels about being a curious hybrid creature that might provide a cure (a cure for which Close’s Dr. Caldwell only needs Melanie’s brain and spine). Is the short-haired, poker-faced girl meant to be conflicted about her status? Is she secretly leading on the humans or does she genuinely want to help them? Questions such as these would be great for a potential antagonist but make it really hard to identify with a protagonist, since it’s never clear where this girl really stands. Not helping either is the fact that Nanua’s facial expressions are further obscured by a plastic muzzle she’s made to wear to protect the humans from one of Melanie’s sudden hunger pangs.
These problems only become more prominent when Melanie, Justineau, Dr. Caldwell and military personnel Sergeant Parks (Paddy Considine) and soldiers Gallagher (Fisayo Akinade) and Dillon (Anthony Welsh) leave what turns out to have been an army base all along during a hungries attack (like the “walkers” in Walking Dead parlance, the zombies are called “hungries” here). That sends them on a road trip through desolate land- and cityscapes that often feel like low-cost copies of the backdrops from Alfonso Cuaron’s much more satisfying dystopian tale, Children of Men. (The only time the effects really wow are when an overgrown communications tower in London catches fire, but that happens much too late into the proceedings for the audience to care.) Along the way, they have to defend themselves from attacks that often lead to generic, blood-splattering shootouts while in between the battles, the characters talk but rarely say much.
Since Melanie is such a flawed creation, it’s hard to figure out if Nanua is a good actress or not; she delivers her lines well enough, though they often aren’t written in a way that proves illuminating. Arterton, Considine, Akinade (from British series Cucumber), Welsh (My Brother the Devil) and Romanian star actress Anamaria Marinca (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), who plays another facility worker, are similarly too often cornered by generic dialogue, generic action sequences or a lethal combination of the two. The only one going all out is Close, whose character is a mad scientist, loquacious exposition dispenser and all-round explainer and generally a will-stop-at-nothing crazy woman. At the frustratingly vague end of the film, you realize that the zombie movie she signed up for in her head was a lot pulpier and more fun than the one she actually ended up playing in.
Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Piazza Grande)
Production companies: Poison Chef, BFI, Creative England
Cast: Gemma Arterton, Paddy Considine, Glenn Close, Sennia Nanua, Anamaria Marinca, Fisayo Akinade, Anthony Welsh, Dominique Tipper
Director: Colm McCarthy
Screenplay: Mike Carey
Producers: Camille Gatin, Angus Lamont
Director of photography: Simon Dennis
Production designer: Kristian Milsted
Costume designer: Liza Bracey
Editor: Matthew Cannings
Music: Cristobal Tapia de Veer
Casting: Colin Jones
Sales: Altitude Film Sales
Not rated, 111 minutes