Movie Review: The Hunger Games Mockingjay Part 1

Have I missed my window to see Interstellar? No, surely not. I will make time. Meanwhile, check out yet another 2014 blockbuster in pretty damn good form:

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Starring:
Jennifer Lawrence, Woody Harrelson, Julianne Moore
Director:
Francis Lawrence (Constantine, I am Legend)
Rating: M
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So here we are, dear friends, embroiled in the hype of yet another young adult novel film adaptation that has been arbitrarily split into more movies than there were books, all in the name of making more money from fans. Like Harry Potter and Twilight in days gone past, as well as the Divergent series in the near future, Suzanne Collins‘ Hunger Games novel trilogy is now a quadrilogy because of reasons, and as usual, it’s the final book that has copped the razor. Given this phenomenon, it will surprise absolutely no-one that the inherently incomplete Mockingjay Part 1 is the weakest film in the series thus far. Yet the things it accomplishes are so impressive and so on-point with Collins‘ original narrative vision that I have to recommend it to pretty much all fans of the series anyway.

The plot of Mockingjay Part 1 picks up right after the Panem-shattering cliffhanger at the end of last year’s Catching Fire. Jennifer Lawrence‘s Katniss spent most of that movie completely in the dark about the revolutionary dealings and covert planning going on around her, and indeed because of her, but both she and the audience start to get their answers right after the movie begins. As Katniss wakes in the cold District 13 she thought no longer existed, returning director Francis Lawrence orchestrates one of the more effective cold opens I’ve seen in a movie blockbuster, emphasising shadows and personal hurt at the head of a narrative that gets very political very quickly. Katniss is forced to decide how much of herself she’s able to throw into the role of the titular “mockingjay” – the symbolic figurehead at the tip of the anti-Capitol uprising she helped spark – as she witnesses both the people and the world she’s known changing rapidly around her.

When I first heard that the Mockingjay novel would be split in half, my immediate thought was that the adaptation team would probably need to flat-out invent a few scenes to fill the first movie with sufficient content. However, for the most part this is far from the case. Mockingjay Part 1 ends at exactly the point I figured it would, but takes more than two hours to get there, meaning the pace suffers greatly as a result. If you thought either of the first two Hunger Games movies used up too much time getting to the arena, it’s unlikely you’ll enjoy the multiple elongated sequences of political talk that make up the bulk of this story. The uncomfortable themes of the final HG novel, by far the darkest of the trilogy, always demanded a very different sort of movie from the largely similar first pair, but I didn’t expect things to play out quite this differently on screen. The amount of action in the movie is astoundingly low for such a high profile project and more than a few scenes go on for longer than is necessary. Yet I can barely recall any part of the movie where I wasn’t transfixed by all the plot-centric pieces falling into place in front of me.

This is largely due to the quality of the cast, most of which make their third Hunger Games film appearance. Katniss’ increased sense of agency in Mockingjay Part 1 affords Jennifer Lawrence the opportunity to return to the lashings of badassery that defined her performance in the first Hunger Games, while Josh Hutcherson goes up yet another level in his best performance yet as Peeta. The late Phillip Seymour Hoffman‘s capable turn as the principal mastermind behind District 13’s revolution is a stinging reminder of what a great talent he was. HG newcomer Julianne Moore effortlessly slips right into the crucial role of the passive-aggressive 13 leader President Coin, and if anything she benefits the most from the added screen time granted by the novel split. Jeffrey Wright, Liam Hemsworth, Sam Claflin, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci and Woody Harrelson bring gravitas, charm and a deft touch of humour to proceedings in their role reprisals, as does Willow Shields as Katniss’ increasingly capable younger sister Prim. Natalie Dormer also pops up as the head of Katniss’ personal propaganda film crew, Cressida, turning a small role into a memorable one with her commited take. And as always Donald Sutherland simmers along as the creepy villain President Snow.

It isn’t just the actors that keep you interested, though. If you’ve read the books you may find that several of the most plot-crucial scenes are pulled off very well indeed (or, you know, you may not – everyone interprets novels slightly differently after all). One particular scene where a supporting character is given the spotlight in order to make a difference to the resistance effort is meshed with another expanded sequence only implied in the book, which works to great effect, while Katniss’ potentially cringeworthy singing scene not only survives the chop but actually works. The entirety of our heroine’s visit to District 8 has to take the cake, though, not only because it contains one of the film’s few action sequences but because its essentially a perfect translation of the same scene from the book. It’s where everything hits home thematically. I may have teared up a little.

In my Catching Fire review last year I talked about Francis Lawrence‘s clear understanding of the oppressive tone that Suzanne Collins‘ wildly popular trilogy develops over its three books. With Mockingjay Part 1 it is clearer than ever that he is the man to close out the series, as this tone is obviously very important to him. The film may have a bafflingly tiny amount of action and it may slow to a crawl at times as the result of the decision to split the story, but you will feel the dread at the heart of Katniss’ situation. Mockingjay Part 1 sets up the explosive HG finale with real panache, and even smartly undoes the last film’s confusing overexposure of romantic subplots. The Hunger Games film series continues to impress.

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THE VERDICT

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Good:
Thematically expansive, nails important scenes, a suite of very strong performances
Bad:
Super-slow pace, next to no action
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515/110A M A Z I N G

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