Melanie is special, the smartest and most polite of all the children in class, waiting to be called upon by the teacher she adores so she can impress her. Against her better judgement, Miss Justineau allows herself to be complicit in Melanie’s harmless games, swayed by the suggestion that instead of the scheduled lesson the class could be read Greek myths as that still counts as history.
Yet despite their appearance, Melanie and her classmates are no ordinary children and this is a school unlike any other, and when Miss Justineau accidentally lets slip that Melanie is her favourite pupil by showing her forbidden affection, the soldiers who escort Melanie and her classmates to and from their cells every morning and every night, bound hand, foot and head to their chairs, step in to remind why such precautions are necessary.
Melanie and the others are infected by the same mutated strain of the fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis which swept the globe just over a decade previously. Unlike the uncontrollable hungries who press against the high fences and gates of the remote army outpost Beacon, these children retain their mental capacity so long as they do not catch the scent of human flesh; masked by a heavy barrier chemical worn by all the staff, they are relatively safe, but it is within them, all of them, waiting for the trigger.
But it is not only Miss Justineau to whom Melanie is special. As the most advanced of her class, her brain is of interest to Doctor Caldwell who is utterly convinced that the crucial difference in the pathology of the fungus expressed in these specific children holds the key not only to a cure but a vaccine, with only a few more dissections necessary to isolate the mechanism. Time is running out for Melanie. Time is running out for them all.
Based on the novel of the same name by M R Carey, itself expanded from the Edgar winning short story Iphigenia In Aulis, Carey’s own script has streamlined the story to a taut thrill ride of less than two hours, with director Colm McCarthy (Outcast, Doctor Who’s The Bells of Saint John) crafting what is possibly the best zombie movie which isn’t really a zombie movie since 28 Days Later, and like that film the infection here is fast, deadly fast.
Quickly whittled down from a large opening ensemble the four key characters are Helen Justineau (Byzantium’s Gemma Arterton) whose refusal to give up hope never comes across as naïveté, the uncompromising Caroline Caldwell (Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Glenn Close) who plays games of cruelty with subjects she doesn’t even regard as human, Sergeant Eddie Parks (Macbeth’s Paddy Considine), a territorial army squaddie whose responsibility far exceeds his training, all of them struggling far out of their depth and without resources, and of course Melanie.
That the dependable Close and Considine are both excellent is to be expected but Arterton has never been better than as the teacher desperately trying to negotiate an impossible situation between the adversarial Doctor Caldwell who promises a way to end the apocalypse and the innocent child whose sacrifice she says is the cost of that deliverance.
Yet it is to the girl with all the gifts herself that the film belongs, newcomer Sennia Nanua as Melanie, ten years old, fragile, a good natured child who has never known the touch of another person and has never experienced any existence other than the straps on her chair, anything beyond Beacon as remote as myth, and from the walls of her cell and the stories of Pandora’s and Schrodinger’s boxes she finds herself in an armoured van with Caldwell and Miss Justineau, another box containing both her nightmare and her salvation.
Accelerating the plot is not without consequence, the science minimised with Cordyceps mentioned by name only once and the horror of Caldwell’s proposed surgery not fully established, making Miss Justineau’s jump to mutiny seem rushed and pre-emptive, though beyond the gates the urgency of the road sweeps aside any quibbles as basic survival becomes the only thing that matters.
Unexpectedly, it’s also funnier than the book, Parks cautioning Melanie “Don’t talk to anyone who looks dead” as she scouts out a path through the dormant hungries who crowd dead London, an image which recalls the prose of Wells’ red weed but with grim and vivid immediacy in the modernity of the broken storefronts of Waterstones and Next and the streets choked with grey spores waiting to burst, another tainted gift waiting to be opened.
The Girl With All the Gifts is on general release from 23rd September