This was a rarity – knowingly attending any kind of dark fantasy movie, albeit The Girl With All The Gifts, a film surrounded by a major, positive buzz, and starring the lovely Sennia Nanua!
For those of you who don’t know, TBB have been supporting Beverley, the Cass Pennant-produced film directed by Alex Thomas and starring Laya Lewis. Miss Nanua made her acting debut as part of the central supporting cast – Beverley Thompson’s little sister, Jess. This is Nanua’s second film role and first feature! So, the question for us was, could our girl, a relative unknown and still very young, hold her own in a £4,000,000 estimated budget movie which attracted a central cast boasting Glenn Close, Gemma Arterton and Paddy Considine?
We went along to a special screening in central London, at which Edith Bowman introduced the director, writer, producers Camille Gatin and Angus Lamont, Miss Nanua and her co-stars Ms Close and Ms Arterton. Paddy Considine was absent. We settled in.
A military base somewhere in the rural south east. A pre-teen child counts to 40 while gazing at two precious pictures in a Spartan cell, which she secretes away when sudden activity begins outside. She gets up, fetches a wheelchair and carefully positions it before the thick metal door, gets in and obediently arranges herself within it – head, hands and feet cradled by still-open restraints. She waits. The door opens and two soldiers, Devani (Dominique Tipper – The Expanse, Montana, Fast Girls, Adulthood) and Gallagher (Fisayo Akinade – Ordinary Lies, Cucumber, Banana) armed with heavy automatic rifles, ready to fire at will, enter and check the cell.
The child, Melanie, greets them happily by name. Devani calls her Cujo and covers the child while Gallagher secures the restraints. Gallagher wheels Melanie out of the cell and joins the procession of similarly restrained children of all races, but similar ages, bound for a strange destination, overseen by Helen Justineau (Arterton). It’s a potent and disturbing opening sequence. Curiosity slowly gives way to the sickening realisation that these children are considered dangerous, and the facility is a military research lab, investigating just how dangerous they are. What they find is that Melanie, in particular, is special and Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Close) is keen to unlock the secrets she holds. Sergeant Eddie Parkes (Considine) and his soldiers, such as Dillon (Anthony Welsh – Second Coming, Red Tails, Top Boy) are unnerved by the children, and carelessly toss insulting names at them. As we become familiar with the base’s routine and what they are dealing with, disaster strikes, necessitating an unforeseen road-trip with unlikely bedfellows. More and more is revealed to the audience, as the increasingly hopeless state of the country becomes apparent. Where, you ask yourself, will this all end?
The Girl With All The Gifts is a good premise, though I did find myself wanting to know just a little more about the source of the crisis. It seems to defy convention with its ending. Mike Carey, author of the fantastic Felix Castor quintet of novels and Marvel’s X-Men comics, performs a little sleight of hand as the story is revealed, by referencing and mentioning the Greek myth of Pandora’s box. But, taking a step further back, there is a much subtler issue at play, with an entire conversation about the historic rise and fall of empire and, more currently, that of white male dominance, simmering not far below the surface. Interestingly, director Colm McCarthy said at this summer’s Locarno Film Festival, “… We wanted the casting process to be as colour blind as possible. We made a point of not referencing skin colour in the script…” Yet, all of the authority figures were white – the doctor, Miss Justineau and Sgt. Parkes; the grunts were black – Devani, Gallagher, Dillon; And Melanie, as ‘something new’, something the authorities want to suppress and the grunts fear, is very obviously mixed race.
Carey has crafted a cleverly, powerfully symbolic story, and may have fooled even the director! Definitely a case of ‘less is more’. The central cast performances more than do that symbolism justice. Close and Considine maintain their ever-high standards and turn in great performances. They both effortlessly convey the complexities of their characters – both the disciplined, vocational professionals and the human. Arterton should gain more support for a career inexplicably light on great roles. Her character is the easiest to relate to, especially as her chemistry with Nanua, seen in public appearances, is fully translated on screen.
Sennia Nanua is assured of a very bright future. Engaging and cute as Jess Thompson, Melanie is orders of magnitude more nuanced and complex. For the most part, she handles the job beautifully, and where it is uneven is hardly of consequence. At only 14 years old, she is extraordinary in close up, and handles her expression far more effortlessly than anything else.
The Girl With All The Gifts (AKA She Who Brings Gifts) is released in the UK on September 23rd 2016, and benefited from the BFI Film Fund.