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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 – Review

November 18, 2014

Film + Entertainment | by Francesco Cerniglia


Katniss & Gale

They say it’s usually better to save the best for last. I’m not sure that’s always the case or if it’s applicable to Mockingjay, the final installment in The Hunger Games saga. The main reason for my skepticism is that the cinematic adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ last book in her best-selling trilogy of YA dystopian novels has been split into two films, following a Hollywood money-making trend that was inaugurated and made remunerative (though not necessarily sound on an artistic level) by the Harry Potter franchise. The Twilight vamps followed suit so it’s no surprise that the most popular YA adaptation cash machine left standing would take advantage of it as well.

At this point in time, if you’re still in the dark about what The Hunger Games is, you probably have lived on another planet. Since the majority of readers will be overly familiar with films and novels alike, in order to avoid alienating them I’d refer the late-comers to my review of last year’s second installment, Catching Fire, where I recapped who or what everything is. Now it’s time to focus on whether or not Mockingjay Part 1 delivers the goods but also if having double the dose of it is detrimental from a storytelling standpoint. I personally think that less is more but the case in question is a tricky one.

The first distinctive trait that easily pops from the very first shot of Mockingjay Part 1 is the inevitable change of pace that the new set up in the story has brought to the table. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), along with her mom and sister, her BFF Gale (Liam Hemsworth), her escort Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and her drunken mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) have been sheltered by the rebels who dwell in the underground of the destroyed District 13. After going through the cruel games not once but twice, Katniss is suffering from horrible PTSD-induced nightmares. At the end of Catching Fire she’d been rescued by the rebellion, with the help of double crosser Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who posed as Head Gamemaker for the Capitol’s vicious President Snow (Donald Sutherland).

Plutarch is actually the rebels’ media manager and works closely with the rebellion’s President, Alma Coin (new entry Julianne Moore) on a plan to finally ignite insurrection with the hope of overthrowing the despotic and repressive government of Panem. But their agenda entails making Katniss the face of their campaign aimed at convincing the subjugated masses to rise in revolt. Katniss has already won over the population of Panem with the humanity and sensibility displayed during the games, she is the mockingjay, the symbol of hope, but she refuses to comply with the campaign. Not only she’ deeply distressed after visiting what remains of District 12, her home, that’s been wiped out by the Capitol’s bombs but the rebels have left Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) behind during their rescue plan, something she seems unable to forgive them for.

Cressida

When Peeta appears on Capitol’s TV, interviewed by the always eccentric Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), Katniss is relieved to see he’s alive but crushed when he invites people to desist from a pointless rebellion. She figures he’s probably been forced to say all that but she’s still hurt and becomes determined to save him to the point of accepting President Coin’s offer as long as they rescue Peeta. Coin complies and Katniss gets to work with Plutarch to film the campaign message but she’s not able to deliver the furor they expect from her, coming across as stagey and artificial. Haymitch suggests that the only way for her to be authentic is to be filmed in the field amongst the people she belongs with, so a film crew led by punkish-looking director Cressida (Game Of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer) follows Katniss as she visits some refugees in a make-shift hospital which gets promptly bombarded by President Snow, propelling Katniss’ genuine outrage and vibrancy that Plutarch had promised to President Coin.

At this point the action-y side of the film kicks into gear with the mission to rescue Peeta that predictably won’t be an easy task, considering how President Snow’s machinations have reached a new level of evil. But that’s exactly when the film gets a bit frustrating since we’re left hanging by a thread, having to wait another year for the epilogue, right as things were starting to get juicy. This time though it’s not a cliffhanger envisioned by the novel’s author at the end of her book. It’s the annoying product of studio business dictating their greedy terms.

Now, I may be no one to judge an efficient business plan by what at the end of the day it’s an industry aimed to make a profit but the screenwriter in me who’s solely preoccupied with the quality of storytelling can’t help but raise an eyebrow. I won’t enter the diatribe regarding how this final novel may or may not be the weakest in the trilogy but I believe a single film, even if longer, would’ve been a tighter option to keep things engaging throughout. Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad that Mockingjay Part 1 takes its time with the characters, exploring their post-trauma wounds and conveys the horror and bleakness that a country practically engaged in civil war is ridden with. But exactly because of such an intense set up it’s hard not to feel frustrated as the screen cuts to black right when things are finally headed towards the much needed climactic catharsis of the finale.

Rant aside, in the realm of teen dystopia franchises, The Hunger Games confirms it’s the one to beat and Hollywood is still rumbling to find a worthy successor. After joining the club in the previous installment, director Francis Lawrence confirms he’s the right man for the job of steering the ship until the very end. The film is beautifully shot and once again the cast is extremely solid and now evidently at ease within these characters. Latest additions, both illustrious ones like Julianne Moore or emerging ones like Nathalie Dormer, integrate themselves into the established ensemble effortlessly.

Katniss - 2

But it’s undoubtedly Jennifer Lawrence the one who makes the difference, showing off why she’s already won an Oscar (and got nominated several times) despite her young age. This is the part of the saga where she needs to flex her acting muscles beyond the action scenes and carry the emotional weight of the story. And you bet she achieves that with grace and nuances, without ever feeling over the top as such would be the risk with this kind of material. Last but not least, a special mention is in order for the late Philip Seymour Hoffman who plays Plutarch with his perfect, understated wit and energy, grounding the political context of the story and the satire on media manipulation in a believable and relatable way. If there’s one perk of having to wait another year for Mockingjay Part 2 is that we can look forward to one last film with Philip Seymour Hoffman. After that it’ll be hard to fill the void.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1
is released in UK cinemas on November 20th

Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor