Intense, absorbing and confidant, there’s a lot that’s right about Mockingjay -Part One, the first of a two-part finale to the Hunger Games series; and yet, it’s all drastically undermined by one fatal flaw, and it’s right there in the title: Part One.
Like the Deathly Hallows and Breaking Dawn, the final book in this insanely popular franchise has been split across two films to maximise profit at the expense of the story – which inevitably suffers a bereavement of action and, crucially, an unsatisfying resolution. It’s a disappointing comedown from Catching Fire – even if it does whet our appetites for a potentially bombastic Part Two.
The drop-off in action is most frustratingly felt during a sluggish first act that seems terribly cold and disconnected as Katniss, saved from the wreckage of the Games arena in the last film to become the figurehead of a rebellion, spends most of her time sat in a bunker debating the morality of war tactics while outside, and unseen, others do all the dying.
Like President Alma Coin (Moore), leader of the outlaw District 13, director Francis Lawrence realises Katniss is much more effective when dropped into the throbbing heart of the action and our young hero is soon sent out to witness the Capitol’s destructive force and rally the troops to kick the film into a higher gear.
Cut to a series of taut and viscerally daunting action sequences as more Districts join the rebellion, culminating in a gripping midnight raid on the Capitol that evokes the gritty claustrophobia of Zero Dark Thirty – albeit with an added sci-fi twist.
Lawrence also doesn’t hold back when depicting the horrors of war, leading us on sobering walks through obliterated homes where hundreds of corpses remain frozen in terror by ash and rotting bones crunch underfoot, and on a trip to a ramshackle hospital overcrowded with injured and dying children. Mockingjay doesn’t take the effects of war lightly, and it’s all the more moving for it.
All this destruction is part of a high stakes game of cat and mouse between Coin and her despotic counterpart President Snow (Sutherland), a battle that is as much focused on the power of the media as it is on bullets and bombs. Each side is waging its own propaganda campaign to gain support and discredit the opposition, the rebels using Katniss as a symbol of hope for Panem while, on the side of the Capitol, and imprisoned Peeta (Hutcherson) appears in treasonous broadcasts advocating surrender.
The pawn caught up in the middle of these warring presidents’ political games is Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen. Left shattered and traumatized by the trials of two Hunger Games, Katniss is far from the girl on fire we, or indeed Coin, anticipated, and she’s more concerned with rescuing Peeta and mourning the destruction of her home than she is with fanning the flames of revolution across the Districts.
Yet Lawrence continues to be sublime in the lead role, displaying an impressive emotional depth in conveying Katniss’ vulnerability and devastation as well as her fiery determination to protect the ones she loves. Lawrence carries the emotional heft of this film and the franchise would simply be lost without her engaging and enticing presence.
Strangely, the rest of the cast don’t fare nearly as well, with Gale, Finnick, Plutarch and Coin all having the roles truncated from the book. The performances are uniformly strong – Julianne Moore’s Coin is intriguingly enigmatic, robust and slightly androgynous, and Philip Seymour Hoffman is fascinatingly manipulative as guerrilla PR man Plutarch – but there’s little progress or character development, which raises the question: why split the book if not to explore these characters in greater depth?
It’s a problem that frustrates throughout as, for all Francis Lawrence’s masterful tension and subtle imagery and the cast’s exemplary performances, there’s no sense that the story is building to anything important until a final image that leaves events tantalizingly poised ahead of next year’s true finale.
Running time: 123 mins; Genre: Action/Sci-fi; Released: 20 November 2014;
Director: Francis Lawrence; Screenwriters: Danny Strong, Peter Craig;
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland
Click here to watch the trailer for The Hunger Games: Mockingly – Part One