It’s been a few years since we had a great outbreak movie, and Colm McCarthy’s The Girl With All The Gifts — based on the novel by M.R. Carey, who also penned the script — is a tense and thought-provoking entry into the genre. A welcome return for those of us hankering for a good ol’ survival story, the film nevertheless makes some interesting changes and subversions. Self-aware yet never self-reflective, it succeeds in the difficult task of recapturing the essence of the genre, without entirely reinventing the form or repeating tired tropes.
Set in a post-apocalyptic Britain, a fungal spore outbreak has transformed the land, the afflicted having turned into mindless flesh-eating ‘hungries’. The film revolves around the staff of a “school” set up in an army base to educate a small group of second-generation hybrid children who retain the ability to think and learn, but who still crave human flesh. These hybrids are seen as the only hope for the survival of humanity and the potential source of a cure, with experimentation on them justified in the name of the survival of the human race.
All the usual conventions of the outbreak film are at play here. We have the unfeeling scientist, Dr Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close); the overzealous soldier, Sgt. Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine); and the sympathetic monster/victim, Melania (Sennia Nenua). And let’s not forget the sentimental mother figure in Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton), who is tasked with the day-to-day care and study of the children, and through whose eyes we watch most of the action unfold.
Despite the generic set up, McCarthy and Carey nevertheless manage to find new ground by refusing to pull any punches when it comes to the difficult moral ambiguities of the film. No one gets out of this with their hands or conscience clean, and under the eye of the camera, we get to watch as the dirt starts to pile up under their nails.
So come with us as we walk you through seven reasons The Girl With All The Gifts is, at once, the best and most messed up outbreak film we’ve seen in years.
1. It’s About Innocent Children Who Eat Human Flesh
I would have loved to have heard the pitch on this one. Flesh-eating children are disturbing enough, but The Girl With All The Gifts pushes the creep factor even further by having them otherwise be quite innocent, even kinda sweet. What makes this juxtaposition work so well is the amazingly nuanced execution, with McCarthy even managing to play off this dichotomy for some of the more humorous moments in the film — which is no mean feat. When was the last time you heard a child cannibal joke and laughed?
These humorous moments make for great punctuation in an otherwise very dark and troubling film, and it is of great credit to the filmmakers that they can find humour there. But, mostly, this contrast is used to scare and freak you the hell out. Observe:
2. It Has Amazing Cinematography
Cinematographer Simon Dennis has done an amazing job shooting this film, keeping the energy high during the fast-paced and brutal actions scene, but also finding moments of sublime beauty in the film’s otherwise brutal landscape of violence and death. Just as you can’t appreciate happiness without a little pain, you can’t really enjoy being frightened without being lulled into dropping your guard, and Dennis does a great job of baiting us back into the calm moments of the film before breaking out the scares again. Some of the shots here of Justineau walking through halls with a gun look like they could’ve been shot by Roger Deakins.
3. It Explores The Evils Done In The Name Of Survival
Eschewing the standard Hollywood paradigm of good vs. evil, The Girl With All The Gifts instead asks: Can you perpetrate evil while trying to do good? The convention of questioning what we do to survive is, of course, well-trodden within the genre, but where other entries tend to baulk at taking these question to their logical conclusions, this film does not. Unflinchingly examining the value of survival in a world that demands we sacrifice our humanity, McCarthy and Carey avoid falling into cliche or easy answers, instead only posing more difficult questions for the viewer.
4. It Has One Of The Best Casts In Contemporary Horror
When was the last time you saw Glenn Close do a genre horror film? (Her cameo in Guardians Of The Galaxy doesn’t count). Backed up by a stellar cast of veteran British film and television actors, Close and co. are perhaps the most integral part of the film’s success, as without their nuanced and convincing performances the film would fall flat. Driven as it is by the shared ethical dilemmas of the characters, the film leans heavily on the cast to help the audience empathise, which is no small feat when faced with such extreme subject matter. 13-year-old Sennia Nenua, who plays Melanie, also deserves a very special mention here doing an amazingly convincing job of portraying such a complex and difficult character at such a young age. She’s also friggin’ adorable IRL.
5. It Has Babies That Eat Their Way Out Of Their Mothers
You read that right — part of the backstory lore of this film is that the ‘hungry’ human hybrids are actually the babies of women who were pregnant when infected which then led to the whole ‘belly-bursting’ DIY C-Section birth of the second generation hybrids. Pretty messed up right? Why don’t we just skip the clip for this one, ay?
6. This Outbreak Is Caused By Good Ol’ Mother Nature Instead Of A Mad Scientist
Whereas in most outbreak films the cause is man-made or left ambiguous, in The Girl With All The Gifts the outbreak is explicitly natural in origin, driven by huge fungus clusters that release spores into the air. So, instead of being a tale of the follies of human endeavour and meddling with the natural world, the film becomes a tale of nature reasserting its dominance over humanity and our reaction in the face of it.
This is far more disturbing on an existential level, as it not only reflects growing concerns about climate change and brings in themes of environmentalism and sustainability, but it positions the human characters in opposition to natural forces, rather than seeking to re-establish the natural order.
Essentially, it makes humanity the bad guy, which is always more interesting to watch than a standard morality tale. On top of all of this, the fungus is based on a real one that takes over the brains of ants, so there is a whole shade of ‘this kinda could but probably wouldn’t happen’ that made it hard for me to enjoy nature for a week after watching the film, just like how I couldn’t swim at the beach for a month after seeing Jaws.
7. It Has An An Amazing Ending
Without giving anything anyway — NO SPOILERS FOR THIS BIT I PROMISE — The Girl With All The Gifts has a fantastic ending that is as terrifying as it is satisfying. I won’t say anything else other than I was blown away that the film had the courage to do what it did, and I wish more films would do the same, especially horror films.
‘The Girl With All The Gifts’ is in select cinemas now. Watch it on demand TODAY, right here.