Feeling Hungry? Jamie Graham bites into a fresh new take on the zombie movie in 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.”
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!’”
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.