Mike Carey's screenplay for The Girl with All the Gifts contains about as much expository dialogue as one might expect from a concept-heavy zombie movie set in an apocalyptic wasteland far into the future, but there's something unique about how it is written and performed by the actors: The concepts they talk about are entirely self-contained. There is no holding the hands of the audience here. Carey, adapting his novel of the same name, drops us unceremoniously into said apocalyptic wasteland and establishes from his opening sequence that this world has existed long before the beginning point of the narrative. It's a coup of the kind of writerly tropes to which we are accustomed, and it is this welcome decision that immediately carves out a difference this film will have from a standard effort within this genre.
This is, by all appearances, a bleak landscape, but our heroine is a bright, energetic, young woman named Melanie (Sennia Nanua in an auspicious debut performance that tackles some difficult emotional and pscyhological terrain), who begins the film as a patient in what at first seems to be a hospital ward. The production design by Kristian Milsted is utterly precise: These are colorlessly brown walls and strong doors of reinforced steel in which Melanie and her fellow patients reside. Every morning, the soldiers wake them with an intrusive trumpet call ("You friggin' abortions," the soldiers call them - a loaded analogy that needs little explanation as some of the mysteries of this arrangement are revealed). We only see Melanie's treatment of the soldiers, but we understand that her politeness, even with various weaponry inches away from her head, is unique.
Even more unique is what awaits the patients outside of their padded cells. For a kind of education, they have Justineau (Gemma Arterton), who reads storys out of history and myth. Pandora is of particular interest to Melanie, which is a pretty loaded interest for various reasons. Justineau is a good, selfless woman, confined by her limitations in a position that is often cruel to her decent character, and Arterton emanates every bit of that goodness. Part of this might be the various rules surrounding contact with the children, whose true nature will not be revealed in this review but which involves the application of a "blocker gel" on the skin to minimize contact with the odor of a human. We get a glimpse early on of what a transformation looks like, and through a convincing combination of practical makeup effects and digital ones, it's truly frightening.
It is also of great interest to Caldwell (Glenn Close), the doctor in charge of the facility in which the young patients are kept, who believes Melanie to special and wants to examine her for scientific. She presents logic puzzles to her wards, and Melanie's answers are a source of consistent surprise for Caldwell. Close's dialogue here is the brunt of the exposition, and as few actresses are as capable as she of delivering such dialogue in a way that makes it feel organic, Close is superb and calculating in a tricky role that escapes being a generic villain or an arbitrary speed-bump for the sake of the screenplay. Caldwell, as with any character here, has existed long before the start of the narrative, and this is one who seems particularly real as the randomness of chance has its way with her.
The film's final primary supporting character completes a trio with competing conceptions of Melanie's nature. He is Parks (Paddy Considine), the head of the soldiers in charge of security, who believes it best that Melanie is killed. He doesn't see the girl as a human - and perhaps she isn't in spite of what we learn about these children's origin - and he scoffs or always seems close to doing so whenever Justineau shows affection to "it." Considine does not play this role as a simplistic one, but instead is given the trickiest job of affording humanity to what should, for all intents and purposes, be a throwaway meathead role. Parks's final moments in the film, taking place while a physical manifestation of the Pandora legend is unleashed all around him, are particularly heart-wrenching.
Director Colm McCarthy's film superbly balances its genre elements with a lot to say about one's nature, about what constitutes the questioning of it, about what happens when those in power try to capitalize upon it, and about the desperate measures taken to preserve that nature for various ends and through various means. It's a philosophically probing work that also happens to expand and breathe within a genre that had all but felt as if it had died long ago. Action sequences, especially those surrounding a breach of the facility that segues into the second half of the film and constitutes the straightforward plot of sorts, punctuate the patient and observant storytelling, but the characters are the focus here. The Girl with All the Gifts is exceptional, leaving a lot to be discovered and pondered after viewing it. If that's not the mark of a great film, point us toward what is.
Sennia Nanua (Melanie), Gemma Arterton (Justineau), Glenn Close (Caldwell), Paddy Considine (Parks), Fisayo Akinade (Gallagher).
Directed by Colm McCarthy and written by Mike Carey, based on the novel by Carey.
Rated R (disturbing violence/bloody images, language).
Released in select cities on February 24, 2017.