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Hunger Games Catching Fire, The

D: Francis Lawrence / 146m

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Lenny Kravitz, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Sam Claflin, Toby Jones, Jena Malone, Willow Shields

Picking up from the end of The Hunger Games, part two of the franchise – Mockingjay is being adapted into two parts, due in 2014 and 2015 respectively – sees Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) trying to fit in to a post-Games world where she is now seen as a symbol of hope for the beleaguered districts.  Becoming increasingly aware of the social injustice around her, Katniss tries her best to balance protecting her family from the less-than-veiled threats of President Snow (Sutherland) against the increasing demands made of her to be the symbol that promotes the resistance.  With things made even more difficult by her mixed feelings for Peeta (Hutcherson), and the attentions of Gale (Hemsworth), Katniss finds herself struggling to find her way in a world that is changing rapidly both around her, and because of her.

Aware of her increasing importance to the resistance movement, President Snow plots to destroy her with the help of new Games Master Plutarch Heavensbee (Hoffman).  In order to do this the next Hunger Games is designed to pit Katniss against the remaining winners in a kind of Best of the Best tournament.  She also has to contend with Peeta taking part as well and trying to keep him safe.  For his part, Peeta wants to keep Katniss safe in order for her to remain a beacon of hope.  With both of them striking deals with Haymitch (Harrelson) to protect the other, Katniss is unaware that their are deeper political manoeuvrings going on behind the scenes, manoeuvrings that will have a greater effect on her life than she could ever imagine.

As that awkward beast, the middle part of a trilogy, Catching Fire builds on the first movie’s strengths and benefits immensely from an even more assured and commanding turn from Lawrence.  She dominates proceedings from start to finish, eclipsing her co-stars with ease – no mean feat given the calibre of actors such as Hoffman and Sutherland – and gives such a layered, intelligent performance that it almost threatens to overwhelm the rest of the movie.  Full marks to director Lawrence and screenwriters Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt then for making Catching Fire such an exciting, dramatic episode that grips throughout, and successfully juggles the widening story arc with more intimate moments and the kind of cutting-edge visuals we’ve come to expect from big-budget sci-fi movies.

Hunger Games Catching Fire, The - scene

With the movie in such assured hands, Catching Fire is free to impress on even further levels: the gritty realism of District 12 contrasted with the spectacular opulence of the Capitol, both triumphs of art direction and production design; the costumes courtesy of  Trish Summerville (her costumes for Effie Trinket (Banks) are even more outlandish than those of the first movie); the score by James Newton Howard, by turns austere,  stirring and richly evocative from scene to scene, supporting effortlessly the emotional and physical elements; and the superb photography by Jo Willems, a feast for the eyes and even more impressive when seen at an IMAX cinema – the Hunger Games tournament is played out in the full IMAX format; it adds a whole new dimension to the movie, and the scale is suitably impressive: the lagoon seems impossibly huge and the forest thickly impenetrable.

But the scale of the movie is nothing without the characters that inhabit it, and here the cast display a greater confidence in their roles, while newcomers such as Hoffman, Claflin and Malone fit in with ease.  As already noted, Lawrence is excellent, while Hutcherson and Hemsworth overcome the limitations of the source material to forge much stronger characters than you’d expect.  Sutherland is as icy as the President’s name implies, and Hoffman creates a devious sadist in Heavensbee: all self-satisfied smiles and preening behaviour.  Tucci excels (as always) as the overly coiffed broadcaster Caesar Flickerman, Wright and Plummer have small but important roles as fellow Victors Beetee and Wiress, and once again, as Haymitch, Harrelson proves what a versatile actor he is by nearly stealing the movie out from under Lawrence – but only nearly.

With two more films to come, the producers have given themselves a hard task to overcome.  Catching Fire, in terms of the novels, was the point at which author Suzanne Collins began to lose her grip on the overall storyline.  Where Katniss and Peeta and Gale go from here is already known by millions; the trick will be to turn what was a largely disappointing resolution to Katniss’s story into something as exhilarating as this adaptation.  It will be interesting to see if they manage it.

Rating: 9/10 – a bold adaptation that retains all the strengths of the novel, and manages to jettison all the aspects that marred it; a rare sequel that stands on its own and towers over its predecessor.