The problem with huge film-based-on-book franchises is the growing trend for multiplying the final instalment and milking it for all its worth. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was doubled, as was Twilight: Breaking Dawn. The final film of the Divergent Series is being split into Allegiant Parts 1 and 2. And it’s no different for The Hunger Games trilogy, which has received the same dissection and become a quadrilogy. Result: a series of perfectly beefy, stand-alone pieces of filmmaking rounded off with two semi-impactful, rambling conclusions. To insatiable fans, and filmmakers with dollar signs in their eyeballs, more is more. But there is an undeniable sense that this long drawing-out of a finale is at the expense of its artistry and power. One can’t help but think that if a story can be told succinctly in one whole novel, it should be able to compact itself into a single film as well. But no, if there is a way of stretching the plot to breaking point, money-making will be prioritised over punchiness, and to this end there is no escaping the fact that Mockingjay: Part One has a distinct vein of ‘to be continued’ running through its core.
That’s not to say all the other components aren’t impressive. The Hunger Games films always did have a knack of embracing the eerie, savage essence of dystopian reality, brusquely managing to avoid any risk of schmaltz that could so easily arise in a fantasy film series. Director Francis Lawrence makes no exception for this one. At this point in the proceedings, a revolution is brewing against the Capitol, and the uneasy pulse of a nation’s barely-contained rage is maintained skilfully throughout. Following her rescue at the end of the previous film’s 75th tournament finale, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is now hiding amongst the rebels, deep in the cavernous belly of District 13. She is asked to be the ‘Mockingjay’, a national symbol of hope and rebellion, and rises to the challenge with a mixture of ferocity and wariness, motivated only by her desire to save her loved ones. In place of the by-now familiar formula of the Games themselves, we instead spend 123 minutes following an intense propaganda campaign, with Katniss visiting other districts accompanied by media teams and broadcasting ‘propos’ videos under heavy instruction. It’s all very dense and political, and a tad claustrophobic away from the vivid landscapes of the previous films. One contrasting scene, which sees the team pausing in the serene wilderness of District 12, comes as a refreshing break from the metallic underworld, and the song Katniss breaks into as they sit by the water – The Hanging Tree – is a little sliver of magic that rests hauntingly in the brain long after the credits roll.
It goes without saying that J-Law is on form: ever-captivating as the brave, heroic Katniss; un-classically beautiful and husky-voiced and quite enthralling in her ability to emote layers of vulnerability, pain and fear in a way which almost puts the younger of her scene partners to shame (sorry, Liam Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson, but she’s just got it). It’s a treat to see Philip Seymour Hoffman newly paired with Julianne Moore; they command their roles with ease and quality, his signature twinkly-eyed charisma fits with her elegant grace like yin and yang. And amongst the host of other returning members of the stellar cast it’s always a pleasure to watch Stanley Tucci work his drolly villainous charm. There is also the notably interesting addition of Natalie Dormer as a kind of futuristic journo-catwoman: fresh out of Game of Thrones, she has gone from long braids and corsets to a half-shaved head and tattoos; she brings zest and freshness and does a pretty impressive American accent.
So whilst the disappointing sense of being held in limbo until the next instalment prevents Mockingjay: Part One from accomplishing much in the grand scheme of things, its terrific performances and engaging action sequences are enough to make up for it. Only eight months to go ‘til the next one.
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