Mark Reviews Movies

The Girl with All the Gifts


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Colm McCarthy

Cast: Sennia Nanua, Gemma Arterton, Glenn Close, Paddy Considine, Fisayo Akinade

MPAA Rating: R (for disturbing violence/bloody images, and for language)

Running Time: 1:51

Release Date: 2/24/17 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | February 23, 2017

It's easy to take good, solid plot structure for granted. In theory, it should be invisible. It's all about the pieces of a story coming together without us seeing the process of assembly (That's why scenes in which characters simply explain what is happening or has happened almost always feel awkward). We should feel it, though—that sense of the events of a story unfolding in a certain way, gradually leading us to a certain end point. That's why we have expectations while watching a story being told. It's not just because we've seen or similar stories. It's also because a good plot contains a sense of internal logic, which moves it from Point A to whichever lettered point at which it ends.

Great plot structure is easier to spot, perhaps, because there's a sensation of—let's call it—rightness that comes with it. Nothing feels out of place. Everything that happens does, indeed, happen for a reason. Maybe we don't know the reason or reasons until that last moment. In that moment, though, it all clicks into place—all of the asides, all of the material that might have felt like sidetracking at the time, all of the characters' motives and behavior, all of the conversations about seemingly irrelevant things, all of the story's ups and downs and momentum. The Girl with All the Gifts tells a familiar tale, but it doesn't matter. Its assembly—both the ultimate story it tells and the way the film pieces that story together—is a prime example of great structure.

The credit, of course, goes to screenwriter Mike Carey, who has adapted his novel of the same name with abundant craft and attention to his story's every detail. The film is, essentially, about a zombie apocalypse, and at this point, some of you will have raised your guard. Yes, it's another zombie movie, in which characters try to survive in an urban landscape that has become a nightmarish place, where hordes of the shambling undead—in this case, people infected with a brain fungus—are around every corner.

Ignore that. Carey certainly does in the opening act of the film, which, in retrospect, serves as something of a self-contained distraction from the plotline at which the story finally arrives.

One should also ignore those preconceptions because this isn't some run-of-the-mill zombie movie. It's one that possesses clearly defined characters, cares about the ideas they both state and represent, and has a few vital things to say—about human nature and, in a way that doesn't become clear until the climax, about the very notion of what a story about zombies means.

The opening section begins with Melanie (newcomer Sennia Nanua, who plays a difficult, ambiguous role with wisdom and maturity), a girl who is locked in a cell. In the morning, two soldiers enter through the metal door to her room, with their assault rifles aimed at her. They strap her into a wheelchair and roll her down a long hall with similar doors leading to other cells. She is accompanied by other kids in the same state of restraint. They're brought to a room, where painted boxes and numbers on the floor line up with their cell assignments. Their teacher is Helen Justineau (a compassionate but tough Gemma Arterton), whose genuine concern for these kids—and especially for Melanie—is an anomaly in this place.

The remainder of the central cast of characters is made up of Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close), the lead scientist at the facility, and Sgt. Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine), the head of military personnel on site. Each of the three characters—the teacher, the scientist, and the soldier—has a specific role to play in Melanie's life. Justineau indulges the girl's desire to hear stories, with the tale of Pandora and that mystical box being of particular interest to Melanie. Caldwell offers her logic puzzles to solve, and Melanie finds a unique solution to the riddle of the cat that may be alive or dead inside a box. Parks has seen what kids like Melanie are capable of doing, and while he keeps his distance with stoic professionalism, the girl is kind to the soldiers at the facility—even when they have their rifles aimed at her head.

Melanie, as should be obvious by now, is special, although not necessarily unique among her peers. To say more in terms of specifics about the character would be unfair, but suffice it to say, she and the trio of diversely-minded caretakers soon find themselves out in the wider world, after a devastating assault on the compound (Director Colm McCarthy follows Melanie through the ensuing carnage in a sequence that is impressively staged and serves as a way to see what the girl is truly capable of doing—whether she likes it or not).

They make their way to a ravaged, now nearly forest-like, and, obviously, zombie-infested London (after a stop in a forest—another solid action sequence, punctuated by Parks showing what he's willing to do—that whittles down the number of ancillary characters accompanying the party). The goal is find sanctuary in another facility, which may or may not be safe.

McCarthy's screenplay is treading familiar terrain, especially as the party makes its way through the city, yet it has a distinct focus on these characters that is both simple and revealing. In the world beyond the facility, the roles essentially remain the same, although now there is a final goal for each of the three caretakers. Justineau wants Melanie to be free. Caldwell wants her for science. Parks believes it is best to kill her. In a way, the conflict is not between these ideas of what to do with the girl. It's in the fact that none of them takes into account what Melanie actually wants for herself.

Melanie is the character who matters most here—what she is and what she isn't, whether she is like the other characters, like the feral children the party encounters late in the film, or something else entirely. There are no easy answers in The Girl with All the Gifts, particularly in the film's unexpected but completely logical final turn, finding a solution to Caldwell's logic puzzle in a way that completely reframes our understanding of the film's world.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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