and so anyway it turns out that the best thing about The Girl with All the Gifts (2016) is not the absence of Sean Pertwee in a scenery-chewing Sean Pertwee role, because if there is one thing this movie needs it is Sean Pertwee in a scenery-chewing Sean Pertwee role, no, the best thing about this movie is one or other of these two slowly dawning realisations: either a) that Gemma Arterton is gradually transmuting into Mads Mikkelsen, who, by the way, was fabulous in his unexpected turns as Tamara Drewe and Gemma Bovery; or b) that what people actually mean when they say that The Girl with All the Gifts is unlike any other zombie movie is that The Girl with All the Gifts is, more than any other zombie movie, almost precisely identical to an underdeveloped, poorly plotted, British ‘not actually sf’ sf drama mini-series…
Once upon a time, in contemporary Denmark, there were two middle-aged, infertile half-brothers, each of whom lost his mother in childbirth.
Gabriel is younger, more responsible, more conventional. Multiple surgical reconstructions have failed to eradicate his cleft lip, and when nervous or upset he suffers from uncontrollable gagging.
Elias, a disastrous lothario, hides his cleft lip behind a scruffy moustache. He cannot resist picking arguments, however foolish or futile, and must masturbate at regular intervals to relieve the priapism from which he suffers. He scours dating websites in search of female psychotherapists so that instead of paying consultation fees he can ask them over dinner to explain his recurring nightmare. (The meaning of the gothic dream’s imagery – full of sibling rivalry, separation anxiety, sex and violence – is obvious, yet utterly beyond him.)
When their father dies, they discover that he had adopted them. Gabriel, keen to break free of Elias, decides to go in search of their biological father, the long-disgraced doctor and geneticist Evelio Thanatos. Elias, desperate not to lose the closest thing he has to a friend, insists on accompanying his reluctant not-exactly-brother.
And, on the distant island of Ork, in Thanatos’s now derelict and otherwise abandoned sanatorium, they discover three more (infertile) half-brothers, each of whom has his own deformities and peculiarities, and each of whom lost his mother in childbirth.
Writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen – who is currently scripting, of all things, the Dark Tower adaptation – is probably best known for his deadpan, heart-breakingly sad and yet really quite beautiful cannibalism comedy De grønne slagtere/The Green Butchers (2003). He returns with many of the same cast (including Mads Mikkelsen and Nordic noir regulars Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Nicolas Bro, Ole Thestrup and Bodil Jørgensen) to once more scale the heights of absurdist gothic Jutland grotesque – a genre I just made up while writing this sentence. It consists, as far as I know, of Jensen’s two films and maybe Henrik Ruben Genz’s Frygtelig lykkelig/Terribly Happy (2008).
In Men & Chicken, Jensen introduces another gallery of adorable yet pathetic misfits, all of them broken and disconnected and abandoned by the world, full of pettiness and desperation, and driven by violent impulses and mundane yet still unattainable desires. And this time he replaces butchery with bestiality. And abasiophilia. And chronophilia or anililagnia or gerontophilia, depending on how you interpret events. And arguably morphophilia or, if you even more mean-spirited, teratophilia. And turophilia. And even a science-fictional twist or two.
Suffice it to say, Evelios Thanatos is a Baltic Moreau.
And are his children not men? Are they not capable of building a utopia in the ruins of their father’s legacy?
‘I may not be normal’, Elias ultimately confesses, to which Gabriel replies, ‘None of us really are’.
The film ends moments later with a golden-lit vision of community, of extended family as a metaphor for the triumph of affiliation and conviviality over a normalcy of marginalisation and exclusion. It is genuinely moving.
And so absurdly golden that Jensen clearly doesn’t mean a word of it, while simultaneously wanting it to be true.