Director Francis Lawrence Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland
Ever gone to the cinema just to fill in a couple of hours? This is what The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 feels like. Part one is right. The first half to the third instalment in the series doesn’t feel like a stand-alone film, more like a preview to the second. It’s a tough ask to take a novel and split it into two separate films, and the film-makers have done a good job, but ultimately they were stuck between a rock and a hard place; either a single film with a lot of content removed or a two-parter that elongates a novel without enough content to justify it.
That isn’t to say this is a bad film, I thoroughly enjoyed it, but the decision to split it and milk it for all it’s worth was a shoot in the foot. To split or not to split? As is the case with film series these days the option of splitting, and the want of a few dollars more, tipped the odds in its favour.
It’s an abrupt opening. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is in District 13, her actions in the previous film having kick-started a rebellion against The Capitol. The rebels, under the leadership of President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) have rallied some, but not all, of the twelve district’s to their cause. That’s where Katniss comes in. She’s recruited to marshal the troops through propaganda campaign’s, all the while being treated like a commodity and spoken of as if she’s not in the room. Coin and Heavensbee are particularly bad with portraying the scared Katniss into the Mockingjay, and all those around her, from loveable drunk Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) to stylist Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) scheme to use her experiences with the hunger games to create the Mockingjay.
But while the rebels are focused on the liberation of Panem they neglect to see how fragile the hunger games have made Katniss. She’s traumatised, suffering from nightmares, and struggles immensely with the weight on her shoulders. You sympathise but her stubbornness and melodramatic hysterics tend to cloud the film. She apprehensively accepts her role as the Mockingjay, despite her mistrust of the people around her, but only under the condition that Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) and Annie Cresta (Stef Dawson) are all rescued.
During a visit to a field hospital she sees the sacrifice these everyday people have made, much like her when she first volunteered as tribute for her sister Prim (Willow Shields), and she announces she will fight with the rebels. We also see the evil depths that President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) will sink to in order to keep her from influencing these people further. She doesn’t believe herself to be this revolutionary figure but Snow’s acts light a fire in Katniss and she delivers a scathing campaign promo with her ever-present tag-along film crew: director Cressida (Natalie Dormer), her assistant Messalla (Evan Ross), and cameramen brothers Castor (Wes Chatham) and Pollux (Elden Henson), who are just as disconnected with Katniss but much nicer about it. When she’s unable to deliver a message to The Capitol they simply replace her with Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin), who’s under far too much distress but contributes when needed, presenting some incredibly raw and vulnerable emotion in his speech.
This is a story of two Katniss Everdeen’s; one is the noble but fabricated Joan Of Arc-esque warrior in the Mockingjay, the other is an incredibly scared little girl lost. Katniss doesn’t know which one she is, addressing Coin and Heavensbee with a list of non-negotiable demands, but with a rehearsed speech like a child presenting at show and tell. Adding to her never-ending torment is Peter being turned into a Capitol-advocate by Snow and regularly appearing on broadcasts begging the rebellion to stand down. Having seen the destruction caused by The Capitol, taking everything she’s ever known along with it, has left her aimless. This psychological battle is her own personal war and the rescue of Peeta and the other tributes gives her a purpose. The Mockingjay wants to liberate Panem, but it’s Katniss who wants to save Peeta.
While the focus of the film is around Katniss there’s a whole other side of this story we only glimpse. Two scenes involving the rebellion really stole the show, featuring none of the main cast. The first, the wood-cutters using their own developed skills against The Capitol, I really liked, but it’s the second scene, in which a group or rebels who have recently taken up arms attempt a near suicide-mission on a dam, all while chanting a tune, that sucked me right in. They’re inspired by the song of the rebellion, sung by Katniss during a moment of peace after some encouragement. I lamented that we didn’t get to see much more of the rebellion, with more sub-plot being allocated to the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale (Liam Hemsworth), which didn’t really go anywhere because one of them was absent for the majority of the film and the other was at the same time willing to die for Katniss yet rather frosty to all her advances.
The ending really felt like the end of the first act in a larger film, as a team is sent in to try and rescue the captive tribute’s. It’s a shocking plot twist that sets up the finale quite well and leaves us wanting more. There’s a flurry of activity and a small amount of resolution, though it does leave things wide open. There’s no real build to the cut-to-black. It’s an abrupt ending.
Katniss Everdeen is going through an identity crisis. First there’s this plain, young girl who isn’t cut out for any of this, and hides in the darkness after nightmares and begs not to be taken back to bed. She walks without confidence and can only shake her head at the devastation around her. Throughout she develops fortitude, but when she sees the deteriorating Peeta it’s easily stripped away from her. Her only defence is her natural stubbornness. After the events of the last film she’s mistrusting of all those involved with this rebellion, and she uses her stubborn attitude against those trying to exploit her natural emotions.
Then there’s this freedom fighter everybody wants her to be. To her what they see is inexplicable, this persona is a complete stranger and she lacks the faith in herself to see it’s through her sensitivity to the suffering around her that she becomes the Mockingjay. Everybody around her is so focussed on making her the face of the rebellion they fail to acknowledge Katniss. Relationship’s are strained and because of this any time she’s expected to step into the role the young girl creeps back in and she retreats inside herself, hiding behind her stubbornness, a new false confidence. But whether she admits it or not the Mockingjay is in her blood, and while she’s not yet there this film is a huge step in that direction. When she announces she will fight with the rebels she’s coming to terms with her role as the Mockingjay.
Jennifer Lawrence is really good at what she does, playing the everyday girl very well, and I buy her as Katniss. Managing to show fiery determination while maintaining a sense of vulnerability is tough, the difference between the two is night a day and she walks a very thin line, but unfortunately the two polar opposites never shared screen-time. In one scene she’s crying Katniss and in another she’s firing arrows at aircraft as the Mockingjay. But the two personalities never truly meet, we only catch brief moments. Having said that it resonates with my view that this is half a film, so we’re yet to see Katniss fully embrace herself as the Mockingjay. Half a film makes half a character.
Donald Sutherland managed to steal the show with barely any screen time and nearly no focus. His uncaring and callous nature with his elitist persona was so hateful you just wanted to reach in and knock him one, yet at the same time he showed how shallow he was by bickering over the wording of a speech, more concerned with how the public would perceive him. His disposition is unwavering and the only time it breaks is when he sees joy in the havoc he’s wreaking on the rebellion. A truly evil man, well done Donald.
Josh Hutcherson played an integral role, but it didn’t involve any dynamic, though his later scenes were quite intense and shocking. He managed presence in a small amount of film-time and only so much focus on his character, and I thought for what he was given he did a good job. I can see him becoming a really good actor in the future.
The rest of the cast played their roles, but there wasn’t much there to work with. Liam Hemsworth is capable of putting in a good performance at times, Gale’s reflection on District 12 showed this, but for the most part he was quite bland, and all others after that, such as Natalie Dormer, Jeffery Wright and Elizabeth Banks, just did their part. There wasn’t much for them to do, but they didn’t have to. Phillip Seymour Hoffman showed his experience as the image-obsessed Heavensbee, I could see him as a real-world PR rep, while he and Julianne Moore as the straight-laced (and haired) Alma Coin were a great team and complimented each other. He will be missed.
However, the biggest casting let-down was Woody Harrelson, who’s Haymitch Abernathy has become superfluous to the needs of Katniss and the film, and literally has nothing to do. He shows up, has two scene’s, and spends the rest of it all as a silent observer. His drunken antics are gone thanks to forced detox, robbing him of any individuality, so he blends into the background. A fault of the film-makers or author Suzanne Collins I don’t know, but I was so disappointed to see a man like Harrelson thrown to the wayside.
The Making Of
I’m not yet sold on Francis Lawrence, but in comparison he had more action and suspense to work with in the last film, and should have it again with the next one, so to critique him on this alone would be unfair. Having said that there was really nothing about his directing that stood out. There were times where he captured the emotion of the moment, especially the close-ups with Katniss, but other points felt like he was just filming actor’s. I have yet to watch his previous work, and the man has only really just delved into this business, having directed five films so far, so judgement on his efforts will be reserved once he has a few more notches under his belt.
The film was a little too linear, going along at a single-pace without your typical three-act structure and feeling slightly anti-climatic, though for me the ending worked and left me wanting more, setting up the final instalment. Having the novel elongated to fit two films contributed to the single-pace. As quickly as things picked up they died again, and as quickly as they died they picked up, and those changes came a lot. This was a two-hour movie and it felt like a two-hour movie. Everything was in real time.
The film spends a lot of time in the halls of District 13 with its grey walls, dark jumpsuits and black S.W.A.T gear, while outside it’s the ruined landscapes of the war-torn district’s. Gone are the bright lights and colourful costume’s of The Capitol, apart from a few brief scenes with President Snow and the fine suits worn by Peeta. The only other colour’s were the surrounding lush, green forest’s, but there wasn’t enough action there and hence they were rarely seen. The only other colour I truly noticed was the red blood in the rebel hospital, which spoke in volumes as to the nature of the film.
The quality that stood out in production was the soundtrack. I’m a sucker for a good movie score and this one was amazing. James Newton Howard knew when to go all-out and when to pull back, but it was three pieces in particular that stood out for me; the Katniss / Gale hunting trip with some beautiful guitar which I will learn once I have the track in my possession, Katniss drenched in the rain going back for Prim, and ‘The Hanging Tree’. The drama and emotion of every scene was complimented and enhanced by the music. James Newton Howard take a bow.
You’ve got a good film here, for young and old, but it’s not what you expect. It has all the makings of a great film, but you only get to see half of it, while the plot, pacing, and characterisation suffer, and it’s all because of the moolah. I walked away from this film feeling like I’d watched the Katniss Everdeen show, and that everything else involved was just along for the ride. However, I don’t hold these weaknesses against the film-makers as they did their best but I can’t help but feel a little cheated. In a perfect world I could review both parts together as one film, which I’m considering come November 20th next year, but for now I have to go with what I’ve got so far, and while I do recommend it that recommendation comes with a disclaimer.
6 of 10