The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 picks up more or less where Catching Fire left off. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is with the rebels in District 13, who rescued her and fellow competitor Finnick (Sam Claffin) from the games in an effort orchestrated by Plutarch Heveansbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), games organiser turned revolutionary. District 13 is run by President Coin (Julianne Moore), with second-in-command Boggs (Mahershala Ali), who rules with an iron grip while building up the forces to take on the Capital. Katniss’ childhood friend and one third to the central love triangle, Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is also present, having found his calling as a soldier. Katniss is reunited with her mother and sister, but deeply concerned for her co-victor and pretend-but-also-sort-of-real love interest Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who was not rescued and is soon used as a propaganda tool by the Capital. As such, the rebels need their own propaganda tool – Katniss, the Mockingjay.
She agrees to help them after returning home to see the destruction wrought by the Capital and its leader, President Snow (Donald Sutherland), on the condition that all of the victors currently held by the Capital are rescued – this includes Peeta, Johanna (Jena Malone) and Finnick’s own love interest, Annie (Stef Dawson). Before long Katniss is shooting her own propaganda videos, and doing it badly until her mentor Haymitch arrives, newly dried out and sober, to teach them all about the real Katniss, suggesting they try for a more genuine approach and teaming up with a less-ridiculously made up Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks). Plutarch brings in Cressida (Natalie Dormer), a talented director and refugee from the capital, to film Katniss in the field, producing videos that move the people of Panem to rebellion. Doing so, however, puts Peeta and the other victors at even greater risk of retribution from Snow, especially when Peeta warns them of an impending attack from Capital forces. The rescue is mounted post-haste, but a diversionary conversation between Katniss and Snow suggests that she may not in fact want Peeta back – “It’s the things we love most that destroy us.”
The third instalment of The Hunger Games series, Mockingjay is by far the weakest and slightest of the books, and perhaps lends itself least to being divided into two films, following the current trend of wringing franchises for all they are worth. As such, it’s to the film’s credit that it manages to sustain and expand the narrative without feeling overly contrived or unnecessarily stretched out. Francis Lawrence returns again as director, having given us a vast improvement on Gary Ross’ first instalment in Catching Fire, and the franchise seems safe in his hands. It feels reductive to say that the film’s greatest merit is that it is not as bad as it could have been, but this is a significant achievement in the face of such slender source material.
Author Suzanne Collins has often cited her inspiration for The Hunger Games as resulting from channel flicking between reality television and news coverage of a war zone – porque no los dos? In Mockingjay – Part 1, this is not so much the critique of voyeurism through a reality television death match as the mediatised revolution, a battle of sound bites and broadcasts that nevertheless still plays out on a deadly, physical level. Lawrence manages these themes without dipping into the heavy-handed or clumsy doling out of morales, and delivers nice moments of collision between the two worlds – a speech writer who calls for the annihilation of the rebels is confronted with the knowledge that an entire hospital will be bombed; it takes genuine destruction and death to get the sort of reaction from Katniss that will mobilise a subjugated people.
One of the challenges facing the film is translating quite real and affecting written violence from the books into an M rating on screen, so that its target Young Adult audience can actually see the film. This means little blood and a lot of implied violence, and Lawrence draws very real connection between those inspired by the Mockingjay videos and those mowed down by gunfire from the Capital forces.
Jennifer Lawrence carries the film as stoically as ever, giving us a Katniss that reveals as little of herself as possible while still managing to deliver hysteria and horror in the most emotional scenes. She is refreshingly under-made up, looking believably tired and worn down, and bringing a nice element of realism to an otherwise fairly stylised film. Hemsworth has very little to do beyond being attractive, and is the biggest casualty of the shoehorned love triangle. Hutcherson is a far bigger emotional presence than he is physical, though he seems to benefit from a more nuanced position in the film than previously held, with enough moral ambiguity to lift him about the usual golden boy characterisation of Peeta. Julianne Moore gives one of the strongest performances as the steely Coin, while Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance as Plutarch Heavensbee will make you miss him even more, managing a ridiculous name and underwritten role with as much skill and gentle aplomb as ever. Elizabeth Banks has always had way too much fun with Effie, working her absurdity as much as she can – in this instalment, Effie is without her Capital hair and make up and luxurious trappings, and Banks manages to tone her down without losing some of the film’s funnier moments. Woody Harrelson is solid as Haymitch, but beyond being the rough around the edges, soft on the inside mentor he has little else to do.
The film ends with as much of a cliffhanger as it can without feeling like network television, and will lead quite easily into the final installment. Whether or not Mockingjay – Part 2 can live up to the promise of Part 1, or manage the lack of plot quite as well, will remain to be seen.
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