Feel­ing Hun­gry? Jamie Gra­ham bites into a fresh new take on the zom­bie movie in THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS

SFX - - The Girl With All The Gifts -

set 10 years in the fu­ture, The Girl With All The Gifts brings us a Bri­tain – and, we can only pre­sume, a world – re­claimed by na­ture. The tow­er­ing struc­tures of now-des­o­late cities are stran­gled by ram­pant, strangely sen­tient flora, and few hu­mans re­main.

A re­booted and reti­tled The Day Of The Trif­fids, per­haps? Most cer­tainly not, though Colm McCarthy’s un­ex­pect­edly moving, el­e­gant, min­i­mal­ist fea­ture and the best­selling 2014 novel by Mike Carey that it’s based on owe un­doubted debts. No, The Girl With All The Gifts is as much a strik­ing new take on the zom­bie sub­genre as any­thing else, for flesh-chomp­ing “Hun­gries” roam these eerie land­scapes. They are a means to an end: by turn­ing peo­ple into Hun­gries they will ter­mi­nate the hu­man race, and then they them­selves will burst into plant life upon hit­ting crit­i­cal mass.

“Al­though this film’s got zom­bies in it, it’s not re­ally a zom­bie film in the clas­si­cal way,” ex­plains McCarthy. “I love Ge­orge A Romero’s films. I grew up on those films, and there’s def­i­nitely an el­e­ment to this which is a cel­e­bra­tion of that. At the same time, it’s kind of from a dif­fer­ent world, and it’s a per­sonal story first and fore­most. It’s a story about a hu­man be­ing in that world. Zom­bies are like vam­pires or were­wolves – they’re a myth, and you can use them to tell what­ever story you want to tell. And I think the story we re­ally wanted to tell was about this lit­tle girl and her jour­ney to em­pow­er­ment.”

bunker men­tal­ity

The ac­tion begins un­der­ground, in a bunker that houses, among oth­ers, sci­en­tist Dr Caro­line Cald­well (Glenn Close), mil­i­tary man Sgt Ed­die Parks (Paddy Con­si­dine) and school­teacher He­len Justineau (Gemma Arter­ton). Each day 20 or so chil­dren are re­moved from their cells, muz­zled, strapped into wheel­chairs, and rolled into a bare room to be taught by He­len. Among their num­ber is Me­lanie (new­comer Sen­nia Nanua), with whom He­len shares a close bond, though Parks is at pains to re­mind this op­ti­mistic kind­hearted tu­tor that Me­lanie will bite her face off if she gets too close. Half hu­man, half zom­bie, she’s a next-gen Hun­gry who was just a baby when she was dis­cov­ered be­side her mother’s empty corpse hav­ing eaten her way out.

“The part of Me­lanie was writ­ten by Mike out of love for his own daugh­ter,” McCarthy tells SFX. “And that was the thing that I hooked onto be­cause I’ve got a daugh­ter. The re­la­tion­ship be­tween Justineau and Me­lanie is very im­por­tant.”

Cast­ing Arter­ton was a no-brainer – McCarthy points to her fear­less work in hard-hit­ting in­die The Dis­ap­pear­ance Of Alice Creed and stresses that she is a “special, nat­u­ral­is­tic ac­tor”. For her part, Arter­ton couldn’t say yes fast enough, de­lighted to be of­fered a dif­fer­ent kind of role to those that nor­mally land in her in­box. She also warmed to the “Pan­dora’s Box theme” of na­ture re­pay­ing the many evils that have been forced upon her. Find­ing Me­lanie, how­ever, was a headache. “Find­ing an ac­tor to carry an en­tire film, as a char­ac­ter who’s sup­posed to be 10 years old, was al­ways go­ing to be the most chal­leng­ing,” McCarthy says. “We met 500 lit­tle girls for that part. We went to schools, drama groups. We very de­lib­er­ately cast the net away from mid­dle-class areas, be­cause we knew we didn’t want a pre­co­cious, posh kid in this part.”

Nanua, who was found in Not­ting­ham at the Tele­vi­sion Work­shop, was lit­er­ally the last girl to au­di­tion. “It sounds kind of im­pos­si­bly ro­man­tic, but we’d ac­tu­ally moved on to the stage of hav­ing a short­list of about half a dozen girls. We were do­ing fi­nal read­ings with Gemma. But I went to Not­ting­ham, and Sen­nia was the very last one that day.”

“I heard about the film and thought, ‘It’s just

Find­ing an ac­tor to carry the en­tire film was al­ways go­ing to be chal­leng­ing

a film, I’ll au­di­tion for it’,” says Nanua. “Then I had to au­di­tion for it again. And then I au­di­tioned again, in Lon­don. I met the pro­ducer and direc­tor prop­erly. And then I went back and au­di­tioned again and did a read­ing with Gemma, which was re­ally nice, be­cause I re­ally got to know her then. And I think that was the last au­di­tion I did.” She smiles shyly. “They rang up my mum and said I had the part. My mum was burst­ing into tears: ‘Oh my god, Sen­nia – you’ve got the part!’”

join­ing forces

Nat­u­rally, it was im­por­tant that Arter­ton and Nanua shared a bond on set, be­tween takes, for it is their char­ac­ters’ re­la­tion­ship that is the heart of the film.

“We’ve got to kind of fall in love with each other,” nods Arter­ton. “Colm prepped her. He said, ‘When Gemma ar­rives on set’ – be­cause I was off the first week – ‘you’ve got to get it in your head that this is the love of your life. You idolise her.’ So I came on set, and she’s like, ‘GEMMA! YOU’RE HERE!’ She’s cool. But yeah, we are fond of each other. I said to her, ‘Let’s go to Dis­ney­land to­gether when we fin­ish the film. You can come and stay with me.’ She’s never left the coun­try. Do­ing this film was the first time she’s left Not­ting­ham. But she has an aura about her. She’s just got some­thing cooler about her than other kids. She’s sharp.”

But it’s not just the child’s-eye view­point and the strong emo­tional un­der­tow that sep­a­rate The Girl With All The Gifts from the zom­bie pack. Here, any vi­o­lence – yes, even vi­o­lence against Hun­gries – comes with real im­pact (“Shoot­ing a ma­chine gun might look ‘cool’, but I wanted it to be that shoot­ing a Hun­gry is like putting an an­i­mal down,” says Arter­ton. “How do you deal with hav­ing to be­come a killer?”), while the zom­bie/ veg­e­ta­tion peril of­fers a whole new en­emy. An en­emy, it should be noted, that is nowhere near as fan­tas­ti­cal as you might think.

“Quite early on, we were try­ing to come up with a rea­son be­hind the ex­is­tence of the Hun­gries in the film,” muses McCarthy. “Mike hit upon the idea of us­ing Ophio­cordy­ceps uni­lat­er­alis. We’d all watched the David At­ten­bor­ough doc­u­men­tary The Se­cret Life Of Plants, and as soon as he men­tioned it, we all got re­ally ex­cited.”

For those who haven’t seen The Se­cret Life Of Plants, Ophio­cordy­ceps uni­lat­er­alis is a par­a­site that at­tacks ants in the Ama­zon rain­for­est. Its spores fall onto the for­est floor, the ants crawl over them, the spores at­tach them­selves to the ant’s body, and then the fun­gal mycelia grow up through the cara­pace of the ant and into its ner­vous sys­tem. Es­sen­tially hi­jacked, the ant is forced to climb up a tree and hang from the high­est leaf while the fun­gus eats it from the inside out and then ex­plodes out of its body. The spores spread for miles, and the whole process starts over again.

McCarthy smiles. “Ants be­ing mind-con­trolled by a fun­gus is one of those things that make you re­alise that na­ture can be com­pletely in­sane be­yond our imag­i­na­tion.”

Glenn Close is worried sci­en­tist Dr Caro­line Cald­well.

“We’ve never seen a tree quite like this be­fore!”

School­teacher He­len (Gemma Arter­ton) forms a bond with “the Girl”.

The Girl With All The Gifts is out on 23 Septem­ber and re­viewed on p97.

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