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

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.

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~ by square-eyed-geek on October 10, 2016.

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