The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 review

In the opening moments of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is alone and afraid, huddled in a corner of the District 13 underground complex. She has been rescued from the games at the end of Catching Fire, but not from their repercussions, and so we see that she’s clearly suffering. Katniss has been scarred by the killing and brutality that she has witnessed.

This may perhaps be a surprisingly bleak opening for a blockbuster aimed ostenisbly at a teenage audience, but it’s also entirely in keeping with the rich and challenging subject matter of Suzanne Collins‘ original, best selling novels. And it doesn’t end here, as this downbeat and distressing moment clearly sets the tone for what is about to unfold.

Mockingjay Part 1 is very much war film, and while it’s one set in an imagined, dystopian future, director Francis Lawrence never shies away from the realities of war or revolution. There are multiple scenes where ‘peacekeepers’ gun down rebel civilians, and one in particular where Katniss personally witnesses the final effects of President Snow’s (Donald Sutherland) efforts, standing before a sea of skeletons, looking out on a whole township that has been turned into a vast, open grave.

This film, and the series overall, have done well to address war and violence with this kind of brutal imagery. The Hunger Games audience are not being given an easy, guilt-free ride through this difficult subject matter, and Lawrence and co. never once patronise the audience, as many more commercially-minded filmmakers might.

This episode sees a traumatised Katniss stuggling to grasp the implications of a rebellion that she has helped, somewhat inadvertently, to start. She has become an icon for the uprising and an enemy for President Snow. Lawrence has an extraordinarily high number of emotionally sophisticated scenes to play in Mockingjay Part 1 and it’s hard to recall a single moment in which she’s not being put through the ringer in some way or another. But she is a highly skilled actress and she rises to the challenge, delivering what may just be her most affecting performance to date.

The supporting cast also have their great talents tested, with the aforementioned Sutherland proving a particular highlight. He is clearly relishing the chance to play the wicked and scheming Snow, and while his performance often approaches scenery chewing, he knows how to take things up to, but never over, the edge. In one particularly charismatic moment, Sutherland idly looks off into the middle distance and mutters “moves and counter moves” with such seductive, malevolent glee that you may almost forget who you are supposed to be rooting for.

It was with great sadness that I watched the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, but also with great admiration for the subtlety and grace he was bringing to the screen in what will be, across the two parts of Mockingjay, the last of his performances to be released.

Heavensbee’s fragile partnership with District 13’s President Coin (Julianne Moore) is well-developed and deftly drawn with very subtle looks and gestures. Moore has to be one of Hollywood’s most reliable actresses, and here she is absolutely superb – though to discuss the depths of just why may prove to be too much of a spoiler.

During the events of this movie, Plutarch and Coin are attempting in to make Katniss into the symbol of rebellion that everyone already believes her to be. Their chief tool are propos, or propaganda videos, featuring the ‘Mockingjay’ and broadcast across Panem.

Katniss is at first incredibly reluctant to wear this responsibility, and even when she demurs, she still proves unable to bring any truth to the propos. Katniss is unable to ‘fake it,’ which will be no surprise to anybody who has come to know the character through the two previous films.

But things change when Katniss sees the huge human cost of Snow’s actions. In a particularly deft move Francis Lawrence, stages a propo twice. First, it’s shot on stage with pre-scripted lines and then later, filmed again in the field as Katniss responds honestly to what she is seeing, reacting naturally and with fierce emotion. Lawrence truly shines in moments like this, bringing out great complexities in her character’s emotional responses.

Whilst there may be some spectacle in scenes like this one, in which we see Katniss shoot a bomber down with an explosive arrow, nothing in Mockingly Part 1 is pitched as thrilling action. Every shot fired carries the weight of its consequences and the seriousness of what the characters are trying to achieve.

Unlike The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, the visual effects work – by the outstanding Double Negative – is very well integrated into the film, with none of the glaring CG that occasionally proved something of an eyesore or distraction in the earlier films. The film was shot by cinematographer Jo Willems with, for the most part, an exceptionally grey and muted palette, and the utilitarian costumes and set design of District 13 also play a large part in the removal of any vibrant colour.

Perhaps it cannot be overstated quite how serious and grim Mockingjay Part 1 proves to be throughout. The only moments of light glimpsed amongst darkness are just glimpses, snippets of revolution across the other districts, moments of civil disobedience and violent acts of rebellion against the oppressive regime. The series is aflame with anger, and moving forward with a real driving force that bodes well for the series’ climax, due in cinemas this time next year.

The Hunger Games books are incredibly potent political statements, dressed up for accessibility and impact in the seemingly ‘safe’ guise of young adult science fiction. Screenwriters Danny Strong and Peter Craig evidently understand this, and have ensured that their film continues on the same mission.

Strong cut his teeth on TV movies such as Recount and Game Change, both of which intelligently delved into the darker side of US politics. He brings the same incision to this film’s critical takedown of abused political power.

The superb cast and high technical standards really make this a film well worth recommending. What’s more, I would hope that the revolutionary spirit of this series might have an incendiary effect on its viewers, even its target audience teens who have been lulled into apathy by heaps of scripted ‘reality television.’

In a field filled with gleaming robots and colourful superheroes, this sombre, dystopian science fiction film, which treats its audience as intelligent viewers who don’t require simple platitudes and happy endings, really stands out.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 is in UK cinemas from the 20th of November and US cinemas from the 21st.