Doctor Who – Leave your misogyny at the (Tardis) door

•July 25, 2017 • Leave a Comment

The world of Doctor Who is a place I haven’t visited since the beginning of Matt Smith’s portrayal of the character – around the same time the storylines started to become repetitive and trite. Even Peter Capaldi’s casting (who I’ve been a fan of since The Thick of It) couldn’t entice me back to a show that continued to be increasingly tired, despite a select number of later episodes that seemed to be getting things back on track. Yet now, with the announcement of the casting of the 13th Doctor, a monumental change is on the horizon which is well worth celebrating, whether everyone wants it or not.

The portrayal of gender roles onscreen is something that has always been at the back of my mind, ever since my time at University. It was there that three very happy years of Film Studies opened up my eyes to all sorts of representation issues, both on film and TV. However the results that I was presented with in relation to women onscreen were shocking and, as a woman myself, almost depressing. Continuously objectified, often portrayed via damaging, badly written stereotypes, rarely forwarding the narrative in any significant way (other than when they die, which even now is used as a common plot point), and regularly featured as secondary, nearly mute characters, or not at all. Even when films and TV shows do try and break this mould, it’s disheartening how these are almost always attacked by criticism that male-led productions are rarely faced with (specifically Bridesmaids and the first season of Girls, which were both unfairly targeted for their portrayal of men. Because keeping male characters out of the picture is paramount to a crime).

Jodie Whittaker will be playing the 13th Doctor

It is for all these reasons that I really do applaud the decision to hire a female actor to play one of the most iconic characters on British TV. No longer will a woman simply be the Doctor’s companion, they’ll now be calling the shots and saving the world, one time travel trip at a time. It is something that not only opens up the show to a whole realm of hitherto unexplored possibilities, it also opens up the discussion of positive female representation onscreen itself. Yes, we’ve had plenty of leading female characters in Sci-fi and Fantasy shows before (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The X-Files, Orphan Black, Jessica Jones and many more). But there are no such long-running TV productions (to my knowledge) with a lead consistently portrayed by a male actor, and for that ‘norm’ to then suddenly be challenged. That change itself is evidence of the BBC and new showrunner Chris Chibnall actively deciding to make a positive step towards the future and address the gender imbalance onscreen, one which if successful, could well mean other productions following its lead, both original and otherwise.

With all this in mind though, I do recognise and understand those with worries about the future of Doctor Who. I should add here: those with legitimate worries. Those making unfair, misogynistic comments can (and will) happily be left behind by the show – it will flourish a lot better without ‘fans’ such as that (and judging by some of the harsher, sickening responses, this is a change that needed to happen, and one that should even have taken place sooner). No, the fans I understand are those who wanted a man to be chosen again for the role – those ones looking forward to seeing who would be picked next, and hoping for the series to stay as it was. Indeed, my wish list actually had three male names (Tim Roth, David Thewlis and Paddy Considine) and only two female actors (Zawe Ashton and Natalia Tena) on it. A man would have been a perfectly valid choice for the 13th Doctor, albeit a frustrating one for those celebrating last week’s news of Jodie Whittaker’s casting. However I believe these fans will be more that won over by the interesting road the series will now be taking – one which will certainly shake up a show that was rapidly running out of steam.

Similarly, I also understand and sympathise with those annoyed that a WOC hasn’t been chosen to play the Doctor. A decision such as this would have been immensely positive for representation of race onscreen (another current sorry state of affairs), as well as gender. The companion’s race has been challenged before, and recently their sexuality too, so why not the Doctor’s? While it can only be speculated as to why the BBC didn’t push the envelope even further, I believe they may have feared being labelled as ‘politically correct’, a description that has been unfairly attached to them even after Whittaker’s casting. The only minor positive that could potentially come from all this in relation to race, is that the success of an unconventional choice for the 13th Doctor will hopefully open up many more doors of diversity further down the line.

Doctor Who

There are plenty of others happy with the decision though, recognising this as a great time for the series and for female roles. However even some looking forward to what the show now holds are concerned as to whether it may simply be used as a gimmick to draw back viewers long since bored with it. That the writing and plots will remain as dreary as they previously have been. It is true that many of the naysayers will certainly be watching and waiting for them to slip up – a justification of the gender ‘issue’ that they are against already. Obviously whether it is a triumph is something that will only come to light next year, when we see exactly what Chibnall and the team of writers, directors, etc. have created for our eager eyes. Yet with a refreshing vision and a fantastic force in Whittaker at the helm (if you’ve not seen her in Rachel Tunnard’s excellent film Adult Life Skills, I highly recommend you do) I really am hopeful for the future of the Doctor and excited to see what comes next.

The one positive thing that few can (or shouldn’t) argue against, is what this casting means for young viewers everywhere. After all, although there is a huge adult audience for the show (myself included), at its heart Doctor Who’s core viewers are those younger few – those it has the most influence on. The Doctor has always been about treating everyone with kindness and helping others different to you. That although the world isn’t a fair place, you should always respect it as such. And now, young girls and boys can see how a strong female presence can promote this too. That they are just as capable of saving the Universe. I didn’t watch Doctor Who back in the 90s when I was young, but if I was a child now I can guarantee that I would have been obsessed with it. And my little self, who was so in love with Ghostbusters and X-Men back in the day, would have been over the moon at having someone just like me finally be the front and centre of such a big TV show. So forgive me if I actually shed a tear at the casting news – because THIS is what it is all about.

Prevenge – Bringing up baby can be a bloody nightmare

•June 5, 2017 • Leave a Comment

While many films show the downs of pregnancy as well as the ups, there are few that portray it as being downright horrifying – of the fear of being unable to control your body because of something else inside of you. Alice Lowe’s Prevenge (2016) takes this idea in a literal sense and runs with it, in a darkly comic film about a heavily pregnant mother sent on a murderous rampage by her unborn. But you have to do “what’s best for baby”…right?

Prevenge (2016)

Mixing together elements of horror, comedy and drama (similar to Lowe’s screenplay for Sightseers (2012) which she co-wrote with Steve Oram), Lowe’s film is a twisted and unexpected take on pregnancy in which mum-to-be Ruth (played by Lowe herself) finds her life already being controlled by her baby before it is even born. Except this malevolent child craves more than just food, telling Ruth (in shrill voiceover) to kill anyone who gets in their way. Despite this almost supernatural element to the story though, Prevenge is a surprisingly realistic take on all things maternal, particularly due to the mix of genres Lowe chooses to use. Not only do these serve to keep the film gripping, ever-switching to keep us on our toes, they also create incredible tonal shifts throughout such as humour, rage, and pathos – all changes that perfectly reflect the rollercoaster ride that is pregnancy.

However the most obvious reason behind the film’s verisimilitude is the fact that Lowe herself was pregnant at the time of filming, something that adds gravitas to her role, but also a rarely portrayed, direct viewpoint into her character’s situation. Lowe takes all the insecurities of this time –  your hormones going crazy, your body literally changing before your eyes – and isn’t afraid to tackle them head on, albeit via the route of murder. This leads to an unexpected poignancy to proceedings throughout, particularly when Lowe reveals just why Ruth is being driven to kill (a backstory that works well as a pleasing mystery within the overall plot).

Ruth (Alice Lowe) puts on her war paint...

Lowe is keen to show both sides of the coin in her screenplay though, discussing the joys of motherhood as much as the bad, and focusing on the laughs even if they are sometimes found in the grimmest of moments. A superb ensemble cast including Kate Dickie, Gemma Whelan, Tom Davis, Dan Renton Skinner and Kayvan Novak, keep the comedy rolling throughout Prevenge, with one of the highlights being the brilliant Jo Hartley as a midwife who is a little too positive about childbirth for Ruth’s liking. Lowe and Hartley make an excellent comic pair onscreen, Lowe’s dry, dark performance working perfectly alongside Hartley’s more buoyant one. Yet when those sorrowful parts of the narrative do begin to emerge, both convince in these moments just as much as the comedic scenes.

While many will compare this to Lowe’s Sightseers, Prevenge is a whole new and original beast, something achieved through her candid storytelling approach as much as the more fantastical elements she uses. A groundbreaking production with a fascinating portrayal of a female character rarely seen on film, Lowe’s feature directorial debut is funny, dark and surprisingly sad, and driven by an outstanding central performance in which Lowe is able to squeeze humour from the gloomiest of moments, as well as a tear or two at the same time. The story might be simple, but what launches Prevenge to greater heights is its message: that sometimes the journey to motherhood is bloody hard. And it’s ok to admit that.

Ruth is ready for a killer night on the town...

(Originally posted on The Digital Fix: http://www.thedigitalfix.com/film/content/79350/prevenge/)

Krisha – Secrets, lies and murky pasts in a devastating family drama

•March 13, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Krisha (2015)

Our introduction to the titular Krisha (Krisha Fairchild) is an intriguing, dreamlike opening shot of her staring out at us: vulnerable, lost, alone. It is one of many moments in Trey Edward Shults’ film that lets us into the true psyche of his character, while on the surface she appears to be all smiles and happiness at a busy family reunion. A touching yet hilarious film about secrets that won’t stay buried and a past that can’t be forgotten, Krisha (2015) is also filled with a wonderful authentic atmosphere that is felt in every element of the production.

This realism is felt from the moment we enter the house with Krisha, Shults using a stunning long take that follows behind her as she hauls her suitcase through the neighbourhood before she awkwardly greets family members she hasn’t seen for years. It is also in the semi-improvised dialogue that pervades every scene, Shults bravely letting his cast take the reins, something that they obviously find easy due to the fact that several of them are related to each other in real life. Along with the dialogue, this lends Krisha a free-flowing energy, characters talking over each other, the noise level never ceasing as each fights for acknowledgement amid the chaos. It also adds a brilliant comedic element to the film, with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments happening amongst all of the family commotion.

Happy families as Krisha (Krisha Fairchild) looks on...

Yet what starts as a comedy gradually descends into a dark and moving drama as Krisha starts to lose her grip on herself and the situation she finds herself in. Krisha Fairchild is astounding in these moments, her riveting performance loathsome yet ridden with pathos – a character who is truly her own worst enemy. You don’t know whether to hate her or love her…or both.

It is also in these moments that Shults’ directorial style and cinematography really comes into its own, practically becoming another character in the film. While the constantly moving fluid camera at the start authentically takes in the actions of the tale instead of dictating it, the later, darker moments of Shults’ story are even more perfectly emphasised through his choice of cinematic devices. Switching to a different camera and smaller frame size, Shults compresses the tale and makes it seem as if we are inside Krisha’s own damaged mind, a method that adds a compellingly dreamlike edge as the story hurtles towards its conclusion. Inventive and engaging, this directorial style is also something that adds to the overall uniqueness of Krisha, something that would make repeat viewings wholly rewarding.

Krisha tries to reconnect with Trey (Trey Edward Shults)...

With the vibe of a Mike Leigh film and a palpable realism that is felt throughout, Krisha is one of the greatest representations of a family seen on film. Assembling a whole range of methods to bring his dysfunctional family to life, in particular innovative use of style and cinematic devices, Shults creates a gripping tale that is both hilarious and poignant. His film is all the more impactful for Krisha Fairchild’s stunning central performance – just one of the many reasons this perfect film will stay with you for a long time after watching it. That this is also Trey Edward Shults directorial debut is nothing short of astounding; a sentiment that perfectly describes the rest of the film too.

American Honey – The (beautiful) road to nowhere…

•February 24, 2017 • Leave a Comment

It is only after watching Andrea Arnold’s American Honey (2016) that you realise how much this sublime film has had a hold on you from start to thrilling finish. With Arnold’s poetic direction and entrancing cinematography, this isn’t just a film you watch – it’s something you experience alongside every step the characters take. And what a ride that experience is…

American Honey (2016)

A hypnotic road trip movie, this is also a film built on a pleasing sense of chaos, both in the plot and the free, almost guerrilla-style filmmaking approach that Arnold favours. Arnold and cinematographer Robbie Ryan let the camera roll, taking in the action rather than dictating it, the cast of mostly unprofessional teen actors joking, drinking, bickering and fighting just as they would in real life. It is this method that gives the film an exciting, raw edge in which anything and everything could (and often does) happen to the reckless group on their travels.

Acting as our eyes into this mad, energetic world is Star, a poor Texan girl with a difficult (to say the least) life. Played with emotional maturity by the incredible Sasha Lane – another first-time actor who absolutely embodies the part – Star finds herself drawn into the group’s lifestyle after a chance meeting with Jake (Shia LaBeouf in another intense, standout role). Their eyes meet and soon he’s asking her to join their crew as they travel across America to sell magazine subscriptions to rich folks. With the promise of money and a handsome boy asking, how can she refuse?

Krystal (Riley Keough) and Jake (Shia LaBeouf) keep the recruits in check...

It is this initial meeting scene that also makes American Honey impossible not to fall in love with, a simple yet wonderful scene brought to joyous life by the strains of Rihanna’s ‘We Found Love’, Jake and his crew dancing wildly to the tune while Star looks on in amazement. It is just one of many moments throughout in which the music becomes another character, a similar method Arnold used in Fish Tank (2009), in which some of the songs were even used to convey the whole message behind the film (with Nas’s ‘Life’s a Bitch’ at the conclusion speaking volumes without the characters ever saying anything). Arnold uses music in American Honey to also expand on the narrative or often just to let scenes breathe, pulling us into a moment so we are right there alongside the kids, whether they are partying or simply listening to rap music to pump themselves up before a working day. Indeed while this particular music is used by Arnold to show them united as a team, she also seems to be using it as a comment on the kids own backgrounds, with the lyrics about wealth or success almost mocking them in juxtaposition to their own poor, broken lives.

The theme of rich versus poor is actually what drives the film, Arnold directly comparing the lives of Star and the other kids to the wealthy families they visit door to door. Arnold lifts the lid on the underbelly of America (just as she did to the UK in Fish Tank and Red Road (2006)), exploring the causes behind the wealth divide and showing what people don’t want to see – desolate towns and families often made poorer because of drugs, a background Star knows only too well. At one point a trucker asks her what her dreams are and she doesn’t know how to reply. “No-one’s ever asked me that before” she replies in confusion. No-one has thought to – the life of a country girl from a dirt-poor, broken family doesn’t have much promise to it…

The brilliant Sasha Lane as Star...

And yet for all this, Arnold takes a completely different approach to what you would expect when portraying these American towns, her lens finding the unexpected beauty amongst the dirt. Yes, the bleakness is often there, Ryan’s cinematography conveying the stifling heat and the hidden horrors of these rough towns. However it also captures the heartening things we might miss if we don’t look properly, especially the magnificence of nature. Arnold often shows Star herself surrounded by nature – whether lying in the grass, or trying to rescue insects who are drowning in a swimming pool or stuck indoors – a girl who understands all too well what it’s like to be trapped by your surroundings, or simply just ignored.

With a strangely uplifting ending, American Honey will ensure you go out on a high, energy surging in your veins and the soundtrack still pumping in your ears. The unrehearsed performances along with Arnold’s loose direction and kinetic camerawork make this a genuinely thrilling piece of reality cinema, as well as a clever commentary on the rich-poor divide and the myth of the American dream.

Star and Jake share a moment...

(Originally posted on The Digital Fix: http://film.thedigitalfix.com/content/id/79334/american-honey.html)

square-eyed-geek’s Top Ten Best Films of 2016

•December 31, 2016 • Leave a Comment

The end of the year can only mean only thing on square-eyed-geek: Top Ten time. It’s been another great year for films, making it harder than ever to whittle my list down to just ten brilliant ones that stood out amongst everything else. But whittle I did… Same rules as previous years apply – films included in the list had to have a 2016 release date in the UK. So get ready to peruse my countdown of the best this year had to offer…

10. Adult Life Skills

Adult Life Skills (2016)

Rachel Tunnard’s impressive first feature film not only stood out because of its brilliantly realistic cast of female characters, but also because of its beautiful, touching story. Jodie Whittaker excels as the girl struggling to become a fully fledged adult, something made all the more difficult by still living in her Mum’s (Lorraine Ashbourne) garden shed. Writer-director Tunnard handles every moment with care to create a film that is excellently funny and stunningly poignant in equal measure.

9. The Witch

The Witch (2015)

One of the most terrifying horror films of 2016, and barely a jumpscare to be found. A New England family find themselves plagued by disturbing occurrences that may or may not be linked to witchcraft, their paranoia gradually growing as the family begin to fall apart. A quiet yet deeply unnerving film that builds to a chilling conclusion, it also contains more than one nightmarish moment that will stick in your mind for a long, long time.

8. Bone Tomahawk

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

This western doesn’t seem like much at first, it’s unassuming plot simply involving a group of men setting out to free some locals taken captive by nasty, cannibalistic beings. However once the story really gets going it soon becomes an incredibly intense ride, as well as a horror of sorts with some shockingly gory moments. And with an excellent central turn as the Sheriff on the trail, Kurt Russell proved he really was worthy of that comeback crown after his other superb role in The Hateful Eight.

7. Krisha

Krisha (2015)

With semi-improvised dialogue, naturalistic performances (with several members of the cast actually related to each other in real life) and a free-flowing camera that takes in the action rather than dictates it, Trey Edward Shults’ film has a palpable realism throughout – a realism that ensures it packs a punch in the right moments. Set during a family reunion in which the titular Krisha (Krisha Fairchild – riveting throughout) starts to slowly lose her grip on herself and everything that is happening around her, Shults’ film is hilarious at times, but also impressively dark and moving.

6. The Hateful Eight

The Hateful Eight (2015)

While some bemoaned the slow narrative, use of just one location and lack of his usual stylistic flourishes, this is Quentin Tarantino’s most mature film to date, and one that gets better with each viewing. That slow build only serves to make what follows more gripping and impactful, with the writer-director’s flair for dialogue, plot and pacing filling the time perfectly and taking you on what feels like a sprawling journey when we barely leave the one room. Add to that some superb performances from an amazing ensemble cast, and the result is one of Tarantino’s greatest films…for now anyway.

5. Captain America: Civil War

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

While this sequel started in the usual comic book way, what soon followed was a complex plot that thrillingly twisted and turned, keeping everyone on the edge of their seats. Yet the Russo Brothers didn’t lose sight of the fun aspect of the Marvel universe, giving us yet more amazing set pieces, choreographed fights, and laughs-a-plenty, plus new character additions (the long awaited Black Panther and a brilliant new incarnation of a certain webbed superhero) to ensure we were more than entertained, and to make this one of the best Marvel films we’ve seen so far. The bar for what’s to follow has been set very high indeed.

4. Victoria

Victoria (2015)

This incredible film is genuinely captivating from start to finish, something that is firstly achieved by the astounding fact it was shot in one single take – a technically marvellous method to watch unfold, but also a technique that adds a raw excitement rarely seen in any other films. Yet Victoria isn’t on this list simply for that reason. An intense ride that puts you right alongside the titular Victoria and the other characters as they get mixed up in something they shouldn’t, the story zips by at a breathless pace and barely stops for the whole running time. Filmmaking at its very best.

3. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

The funniest film of the year, yet surprisingly also the most heart-warming. Writer-director Taika Waititi pulls us into the eccentric world of Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), “a real bad egg” who suddenly finds adventure calling when he meets his new foster family. However Waititi grounds the story with a beautiful poignancy, specifically with the great, realistic central relationship between Ricky and his gruff Uncle Hec (Sam Neill – perfect). With a superb conclusion worthy of any Hollywood action sequence, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is unpredictable in the best way, endlessly quotable, and more importantly an absolute joy to watch.

2. Mustang

Mustang (2015)

A stunning, devastating tale about a group of sisters kept indoors because of their gender and a misunderstanding, Mustang was one of the most powerful films of 2016 and absolutely essential viewing because of its subject matter. Director-writer Deniz Gamze Ergüven and writer Alice Winocour explore gender and culture issues in an absorbing, moving way, with the performances from the young central female cast all brilliantly realistic and making what follows all the more distressing. You’ll be fighting back tears in the end.

1. American Honey

American Honey (2016)

With its sumptuous cinematography, naturalistic performances, thumping soundtrack and sweeping story about a girl (Sasha Lane) joining a group of young magazine sellers on a road trip, American Honey wasn’t just a film you watched: it was something you experienced alongside its characters. A coming-of-age film that also features clever commentaries on the myth of the American dream and the rich-poor divide, writer-director Andrea Arnold ensures our attention is gripped with every frame, in a poetic film that is genuinely thrilling to watch. A cinematic gem that will stay with you for a long time.

(Those that just missed out on the top ten: Ethel & Ernest, Room, Train to Busan, Green Room, High-Rise, Arrival, Deadpool, Star Trek Beyond, Julieta, 10 Cloverfield Lane).

So that’s it for another year. 2017 already looks like it’ll be another brilliant time for all things film, with releases such as La La Land, Alien: Covenant, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Silence, Dunkirk, Star Wars: Episode VIII, Manchester by the Sea and Thor: Ragnarok on the horizon, as well as many, many more. Happy New Year lovely readers! And see you over in 2017…

(Agree or disagree with any of my choices in the top ten? Think I’ve missed anything out? Leave a comment below to tell me what you think!).

X-Men: Apocalypse – Third time certainly isn’t the charm for Singer’s disastrous sequel

•November 7, 2016 • Leave a Comment

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

“At least we can all agree the third one’s always the worst,” says one of the young X-Men after seeing Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983) – just one of the many references Bryan Singer scatters throughout X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) to firmly cement his film in its 80s setting. Upon watching this though it becomes clear that never a truer word has been spoken about Singer’s latest sequel as well, and sadly not just because this is the third prequel of the franchise.

A promising story about the all-powerful first mutant in existence, audiences have been eagerly awaiting this sequel ever since it was teased in an intriguing post-credits sequence at the end of X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014). With a hatred for humanity and the ability to destroy the world, an interesting introduction to the origins of this deadly character seems to set us up for a rollercoaster ride of a film. Instead what we get is a dull trite affair that is a carbon copy of EVERY other comic book and superhero film and yet somehow manages to be more boring than all of these put together.

Storm (Alexandra Shipp) helps Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) recruit other mutants...

After all that waiting, Apocalypse is neither impressive or particularly menacing as a villain, with Oscar Isaac’s performance hidden beneath heavy make-up and a cumbersome costume that actually seems to hinder his movements. The character also doesn’t actually add much to the plot, with most of the running time consisting of him gathering up other mutants to fight for him, while the X-men do their usual thing – train, argue with each other, reconcile, and just generally trudge along until the inevitable final battle.

The one glaring mistake alongside this lack of plot is the absence of backstory for any of the characters, old or new. None of them are really explored, with the most iconic and conflicted characters either given a brief yet underwhelming origins scene (Scott Summers played by Tye Sheridan), reduced to simple and painful comic relief (Kodi Smit-McPhee as Nightcrawler), or even given no role at all beyond looking good in a skin-tight leotard (Olivia Munn as Psylocke). Even a character like Mystique, who was brought to perfect life by Jennifer Lawrence in both previous prequels, is here not just underused, but barely used at all. The result is that we just don’t care what happens. All of them could be killed in the titled apocalypse and we’d just shrug it off without another thought.

The brilliant Michael Fassbender as Erik/Magneto...

It is the central relationship between Erik Lehnsherr and Charles Xavier that just about keeps X-Men: Apocalypse watchable, an always perfectly realised source of conflict and one that is backed up yet again by strong performances from both Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy. Magneto is also the only character given an actual (and interesting) backstory here, one which is genuinely dark and upsetting. Fassbender deftly delves into this previously unexplored corner of Magneto’s life, once again bringing an unexpected emotional maturity to the role that he uses to expand on this interesting character, as well as the inevitable prejudice faced by him and the other mutants – a metaphorical detail that has always been what made the X-Men franchise stand out from the vast superhero crowd.

And yet Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg seem to have forgotten about this narrative depth in their rush to get through events, eager to pull out all the stops for a grand finale that is anything but. Whereas moments like this in Captain America: Civil War (2016) (an inevitable comparison as these were released at the same time) are choreographed to perfection and full of raw excitement, in Apocalypse set pieces and action sequences fall flat each time, almost as if Singer himself is tired of them or unsure how to keep them interesting. The one moment that does work is when Quicksilver (Evan Peters) steps into the frame again in a brilliant slo-mo sequence that is funny and technically marvellous. However, as is the nature of the character, it is over with far too quickly, leaving us feeling empty once it’s finished.

Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) meets Quicksilver (Evan Peters)...

One tacked on cameo from a well-known face we knew would appear (not least because they showed up in the spoilerific trailer) doesn’t scream of story surprise, but of contractual obligation. It’s also a moment that sums up the rest of the film – a promising scene that soon descends into boredom and repetitiveness again. Singer soared with Days of Future Past after his absence since the very first two X-Men’s, but this is one of the worst films in the overall franchise. Here’s hoping that there will be another prequel in the works to right the wrongs made here – ending on such a low would certainly be a shame.

The Girl with All the Gifts – Post-apocalyptic chills from a stunning best-seller

•October 10, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Melanie (Sennia Nanua) at the start of yet another school day...

From natural, to man-made, to reasons more fantastical, you’d be forgiven for thinking that films dealing in the post-apocalypse had exhausted every possible variation of potential disasters heading our way. But then a film like The Girl with All the Gifts (2016) comes along – a film that presents an idea that is at once familiar, yet also entirely fresh and original in its execution.

Based on the superb best-selling book by Mike Carey, The Girl with All the Gifts actually begins life as a drama, centring on a young girl called Melanie (Sennia Nanua) whose life solely revolves around her small cell-like bedroom, a corridor, and a classroom in which her and several other children spend the majority of their days. However these schoolchildren are strapped to wheelchairs and guarded by wary soldiers with guns…not that the kids seem to mind.

Melanie (Sennia Nanua) discovers the big wide world...

This introduction to what we soon discover is a post-apocalyptic world, is superbly built up by director Colm McCarthy and Carey in his horror-tinged script (he adapted his own book for the film), the atmosphere inviting yet increasingly sinister as we witness events entirely through Melanie’s point-of-view. Secrets about the children and their existence are gradually and terrifyingly revealed to us (and to Melanie herself) in scenes disturbingly portrayed by McCarthy in all their savage glory. It is this choice to show us the world through Melanie’s eyes that also reveals the true purpose of Carey’s book and script – a fascinating coming-of-age story about growing up and nature vs. nurture that just so happens to be set amongst a nightmarish dystopia.

While this adaptation does reflect this theme throughout, many of the other points thrown up by Carey’s book are sadly all but forgotten amongst frantic pacing. The structure Carey has chosen is chaotic, with quiet moments being used for heavy and clunky exposition rather than to build up characterisation. And these are over all too quickly when they do appear, McCarthy throwing us back into the horror all too eagerly. While this does for a time reflect the situation the characters have suddenly and unexpectedly been thrust into, it seems to actually suggest that he doesn’t have faith in the writing itself – that he doesn’t want to give the audience much-needed time to get to know the characters or to fully understand what is going on, favouring action instead. Indeed the central concept behind the apocalypse – an incredible idea which is startlingly realistic in the book – is barely explained by Carey here, a huge shame when this is actually the thing that makes The Girl with All the Gifts such a fresh take on a familiar and well-explored genre.

Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close) fears the worst...

Comparing the film to the book is always a topic of great debate, as there will always be changes in the transition from page to screen, as there are inevitably here. However film adaptations can work – just look at Atonement (2007) whose narrative changes only serve to expand on the beautiful prose. But here it can’t be ignored that McCarthy and Carey leave vital points from the book on the cutting room floor, namely the ethical dilemmas humanity faces in this post-apocalyptic time. This is a question perfectly reflected in the book through the cold and clinical character of Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close) – a scientist given a morally ambiguous task which she knows she must take on board for the sake of human kind. Close here adds a more sympathetic edge to Caldwell which does serve to make her more relatable. Yet McCarthy doesn’t stress enough the reasons behind her decisions and why she is at such odds with someone like Melanie (as well as the other people around her) leaving her an unknowable and ultimately underwritten character.

Other characters are more intricately realised, mainly Paddy Considine’s gruff Sergeant Parks and Gemma Arterton’s Miss Justineau – a teacher who Melanie adores. Speaking of Melanie, this is a role bravely taken on by Sennia Nanua, especially as the young actress carries the film for most of the running time. She gets the innocent angle bang on, all smiles and sing-song voice around Miss Justineau like any other precocious yet adorable schoolchild. And Nanua really excels in moments that are clearly adlibbed, such as a joyous moment in which she explores an abandoned neighbourhood and all the secrets and surprises it has to offer. But when sticking to the script it becomes clear that she isn’t perfect for the role, often wooden at times when performing alongside the other actors. McCarthy should have spent more time coaxing out those moments of spontaneity  and child-like curiosity from her in order to portray this mysterious protagonist as Carey has done in his book.

The group take stock of the horrifying situation...

While for the most part The Girl with All the Gifts gets things right, with a pitch-perfect creepy atmosphere of dread, brilliant effects, and an incredible soundtrack by Cristobal Tapia de Veer that perfectly reflects the weirdness of the world Carey has created, it can’t be denied that it is flawed. Carey’s script feels like a first draft, racing along too quickly and as if it’s just trying to hit all the plot points of the book (and it doesn’t always manage that). There is certainly no room to breathe in this strangely familiar post-apocalyptic land, which is a shame as it is a place that could and should have been explored in much more depth. Read Carey’s book instead to get the full, devastating effect.