Like a 10-years-later follow-up to 28 Days Later, this small British thriller takes a refreshingly original approach to the zombie genre. The most engaging difference is the fact that the central character is infected with a brain-eating virus, so the question has to be whether it's all bad. This introspective approach gives the movie a strong kick, and it looks great despite a small budget. So the film is involving and gripping even if, ultimately, there isn't much to it beyond a cool central idea.
The film opens with a school in an underground encampment, where soldiers guard children who are as heavily restrained as Hannibal Lecter. Their teacher Helen (Gemma Arterton) is friendly and open, as opposed to the sceptical Sergeant Parks (Paddy Considine). Dr Caldwell (Glenn Close) casually experiments on these youngsters to learn more about the virus, arguing that they're no longer human. But Helen has her doubts, especially with her super-smart pupil Melanie (Sennia Nanua). When the compound is overrun by "hungries", it's Melanie who helps Helen, Caldwell, Parks and guard Kieran (Fisayo Akinade) escape. And as they travel across a wasteland into London, they begin to wonder if there's any hope left for humanity as they knew it.
Director Colm McCarthy and writer Mike Carey keep these five survivors at the centre of the film, giving us people we can identify with as things get increasingly desperate. At each juncture, they make yet another grim discovery about this virus, forcing them to revamp their plan. This means that the film has a series of escalating set-pieces that are cleverly designed and very nicely shot and edited to build suspense and sometimes horror. It's also rare for a movie to take such an thoughtful approach to this genre, but then its three lead characters are strong, interesting women.
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Both an intensely personal odyssey and an exploration of the impact of conflict on communities, this sharply involving thriller marks an auspicious debut for director Yann Demange. It also features yet another striking lead performance for Jack O'Connell, who also received high praise for Starred Up earlier this year and has Angelina Jolie's Unbroken still to come. This film puts him through his paces as his character is sent on a relentless journey right into the heart of one of the most complex conflicts on earth.
The title tells us when this is taking place: it's the early days of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, as young Private Hook (O'Connell) is assigned to Belfast, where clashes between Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists have turned the city into a war zone. While on a mission to diffuse a street riot, things spiral out of control and Hook is separated from his unit. Running for his life, he works his way across the city pursued by a tenacious thug (Killian Scott). He also meets a local leader (David Wilmot) and a couple (Richard Dormer and Charlie Murply) who help him survive. Meanwhile, Hook's senior officer (Sam Reid) works with a pair of British spies (Sean Harris and Paul Anderson) to track him down.
The film unfolds as a series of life-or-death encounters that can go either way, and each adds to the bigger picture of how the Troubles have torn Ireland apart. But the script intriguingly avoids politics to make a deeper comment on humanity, making it clear that this kind of situation certainly isn't unique to this time and place. Demange stages each sequence with bravura touches, using long-takes and intense filmmaking to put us right in the middle of the action. And O'Connell's sensitive, expressive performance makes it very easy to identify with Hook as he's thrown into a situation where everyone has guns and bombs but no experience at battle. This approach is so human that it's deeply unsettling; death is always a possibility, random and sudden.
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Have a spookily musical Halloween this year.