A couple of years ago, I read The Girl With All The Gifts and predicted that it would make a great movie one of these days. When the trailer showed up, I had goosebumps; it seemed like they’d got the look and the tension just right, and they seemed to have absolutely nailed the casting of Melanie. Glenn Close, Gemma Arterton and Paddy Considine were just icing on the cake; Sennia Nanua was nothing like the way I’d pictured Melanie and exactly the way she had sounded in my head when I was reading her dialogue. She was perfect. The movie had to be a disappointment. The last time I’d seen a trailer that looked so good, it wound up being Suicide Squad.
The great news is that it all lives up to the trailer this time. Weirdly Glenn Close might be the weakest thing in it. Sennia Nanua is adorable. She is completely believable as a precocious kid who adores her teacher and wants to be with her all the time, and she’s equally credible as flesh-eating monster doing whatever it takes to keep her precious human friends safe. She’s good enough to get away with lines which would have been cheesy for anyone else, including the almost perfect response to Ms Justineau asking if she wants a cat. The camera shifts, from the cat painting Melanie is gazing at, to her bloodsplattered face as she says matter-of-factly “Already had one.” That should not have worked.
I was surprised how true the film was to the book, but apparently Carey was working on the script at the same time that he was working on the book. The only significant change was to get rid of a subplot involving feral human survivors, which would have driven up the shooting price and not really added anything to the real plot of the movie; you could make a pretty good argument that the movie’s an improvement on the book, cleaner and more focused. The production costs were extraordinarily low by feature film standards, and if you know anything at all about film-making, there’s a lot to enjoy in such simple things as the way that scenes are staged and mounted to get the most out of limited budgets. When the camera goes wide to show the whole ruined post-apocalyptic world, the CGI shows its price a bit, but most of the time the camera is staying where it counts, with the tiny five person main cast.
When I reviewed the book, I talked about how grown up woman actors would fight to the death for the parts of Justineau and Dr Caldwell. What I underestimated was just how little it would matter who won that fight compared to how much it would matter who played Melanie. Melanie was a great character in the book, but it was always a long shot whether you could get that on the screen. Sennia Nanua does it all. She is adorable. For the movie to work, the audience has to be rooting for Melanie all the way, and with Sennia Nanua, any audience will be. I hoped it when I saw the trailer and heard her voiceover, which almost made me choke up with emotion. I believed it once I saw the whole performance. It’s a wonderful, heartwarming life-affirming zombie movie which ends with the whole human race being wiped out. To make that work took a kind of genius. I can’t wait to see what she does next.