22 November 2014

Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part 1 (Francis Lawrence, USA, 2014)


The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part 1
2014, 123mins, 12
Director: Francis Lawrence
Writer (s): Peter Craig, Danny Strong, Suzanne Collins 
Cast includes: Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Donald Sutherland, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Josh Hutcherson, Sam Claflin
UK Release Date: 21st November 2014 

It worked for Harry Potter and Twilight, so why not the continuing adventures of Katniss Everdeen? I'm of course alluding to the “Part 1” disclaimer that follows the title of the latest “Hunger Games” outing “Mockingjay”. It's become the done thing that the defining chapter in any popular adaptation should be divided into two, maybe to accommodate purists clamouring for unblemished reverence, but more likely as a means to ensure everybody involved makes an extra buck; except for the audience. By slicing the material with such obvious capitalist intent, movies suffering the symptom incur innate wrath from the consumer, decreasing their odds of making a favourable impression. Nobody likes to feel ripped-off, and this new Hollywood tactic carries a definite whiff of wheeler-dealer salesmanship. It's with some pleasure then that “Mockingjay: Part 1” actually provides a fulfilling cinematic experience, a slower feature than its immediate predecessor (and one would assume next year's continuation), but filled with intelligent ideas and action beats, that whilst sparse, form very real stakes. The political underbelly of author Suzanne Collin's universe is finally bearing narrative fruit, leading to a sobering but intense extension of her dystopian myth.

Every angel eventually falls, and no artist is immune to failure. Jennifer Lawrence (still aged a mere 24) has made a formidable ascension up the Hollywood ranks since her Oscar nominated work in 2010's “Winter's Bone”, rarely faltering en route to becoming a global superstar. For the first time since her debut on the world stage, Lawrence, this year, has communicated an unlikely aura of artifice. Her celebrity veneer has moved from courageously quirky into the realm of oppressively omnipotent, and her work in the otherwise competent “X-Men: Days of Future Past” ranked high amid that film's modest list of problems. Her heart wasn't in the sequel, and it showed in a drearily adequate performance. Thankfully with “Mockingjay” the actress is back to her best, delivering a turn replete with conviction, strength and empathy. Credit must go to the assorted screenwriters, but Lawrence embodies the vigour of a true revolutionary, unpolished but magnetic. It's sad that a film possessing a “strong female character” remains cause for celebration, but in the pantheon of family entertainment role-models come little better, or indeed more human. Every beat in the character's journey is etched with vulnerabilities, chinks in her otherwise kick-ass armour. Just because she cries, and frets for the safety of loved ones doesn't make Katniss weak, it simply renders her real. Very few studio tent-poles would permit their heroes instances of such ferocious despair, but it's these doubts that allow her triumphs to peak with grace. Lawrence is utterly convincing, heart-breaking when she needs to be, and rousing when the film demands it. The skill comes in seeing these separate faces mesh to form a tonally consistent whole, a grand feat of film-making.

The gender issue becomes even more pronounced with the arrival of Julianne Moore, portraying the rebellion’s leader, a clinical force of nature. She's another strong woman (intentionally dwarfing the great Philip Seymour Hoffman in their shared scenes), able to make decisions that others won't. Everything from Moore's intonation to her body language suggests a selfless inner-strength, an unwillingness to bow to pressure, realised through dryly recited speeches and unfaltering laurels. Narratively the figure is used as a glamorous prop, but Moore's turn packs weight. It's a promise there's more to come, and I'm damned intrigued to see what that is. The men on the other hand are softer, victims of rejection (Liam Hemsworth), torture (Josh Hutcherson's Peeta) and crucially fear (both Sam Claflin and in a later, pointed moment, Hoffman himself). These men need to be saved, and only the women of the world are fit to act. Heck, during a dependably well edited and scored sequence, a young girl risks her life to save a cat. It's improbable - even jarring on a storytelling front, a fake heightening of the stakes via an obvious plant and pay-off - but it does underline the movie's devotion to empowerment.

In a way reminiscent of “Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows: Part 1” tone, mood and implication override aggressive momentum, the script a hearty study in character. We have a variety of enjoyable roaming sequences, soaking up barbaric images of genocide (testing the limits of the PG-13 rating), indulging a reverse Riefenstahl subplot, in which the rebels stage a variety of propaganda shorts around Katniss and her increasing disdain for injustice. It's an indicator of the feature's mature ambitions, a delightful attempt to infuse the project with ideas that transcend the underlying but simplistic oppressed vs. oppressors mentality of the initial features. There's a social consciousness here that I greatly admired, an attempt to organically express the currency of images in war, the potential for manipulation even in the name of supposed “good”. It's not particularly complex, but it is present, and should inspire some thought and discussion amid younger generations. “The Hunger Games” has morphed from “Battle Royale” lite into something deeper, and more culturally pronounced. “Mockingjay” deftly explores the burdens media inflicts upon war, and the radical consequences irresponsible, unethical practice can usher. That's an invaluable message in my humble opinion.

 Francis Lawrence remains a good fit for the property, mapping out the universe authentically, and executing set-pieces with panache. He's no visionary, but he possesses a meticulous eye and a respect for character, something not always present in the work of his gloss-obsessed ilk. The climax, a stealth operation cut alongside a glorified conference call, shouldn't work, but it's an inspired feat of sound design, camera work and production detail. Lawrence finds so much truth with his close-ups, ensuring that a human face and a tangible emotion governs the wider spectacle of the action, which unfolds within a sterile, minimalist government facility. Film-making on a grand scale is not dependent on bombast. Artfully honed craft and believable feeling are often more rewarding. “Mockingjay: Part 1” contains each in spades.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014


Post a Comment