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D: Neil Burger / 139m

Cast: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ashley Judd, Kate Winslet, Jai Courtney, Ray Stevenson, Zoë Kravitz, Miles Teller, Tony Goldwyn, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Mekhi Phifer

The first of four movies adapted from the novels by Veronica Roth, Divergent is yet another dystopian vision of the future as seen through the eyes of a young adult, this time, Beatrice Prior (Woodley).  Beatrice lives in a partly desolate version of Chicago that has seen its social structure reorganised so that people live in factions.  These factions determine the kind of life they lead and their social responsibilities.  Beatrice and her family, father Andrew (Goldwyn), mother Natalie (Judd) and brother Caleb (Elgort), live in the Abnegation faction.  Abnegation is about being selfless and helping others including giving food to the factionless (or the homeless); they are also the ruling government.  At sixteen, Beatrice and Caleb have to decide if they want to stay with Abnegation, or join one of the other factions: Erudite (science and teaching), Candor (unable to lie, often lawyers), Amity (farmers, nurses, artists who also favour peace), and Dauntless (brave and fearless and despite the apparent lack of crime, the city’s peacekeepers if needed).

Beatrice undergoes a test to see which faction she would most fit in with, but it is inconclusive.  At the choosing ceremony, Caleb opts for Erudite, and Beatrice for Dauntless (this also means neither of them can see their parents again).  Beatrice begins her training with Dauntless, and meets instructors Eric (Courtney), and Four (James).  At first, she struggles to make the first cut, but with Four’s support and encouragement she makes it through.  As time goes on, Beatrice – now calling herself Tris – learns that her test being inconclusive means she is ‘divergent’, someone who is able to encompass the traits of each faction and effectively “think for themselves”.  Divergents are viewed as a threat to society and are disposed of when discovered.  With the second stage of her training highlighting Tris’s abilities more and more, it becomes increasingly difficult for her to avoid detection, but with Four’s help, she passes the final test.

Throughout there have been rumours of a government takeover by Erudite, who view Abnegation as untrustworthy and duplicitous.  Erudite’s leader, Jeanine Matthews (Winslet), has co-opted the Dauntless leadership into her plan; she’s also created a serum that will dupe the Dauntless into believing they are taking part in a simulation exercise when in fact they’ll be killing the members of Abnegation.  Being immune to the serum, Tris – with Four’s help – has to find a way to stop the coming massacre.

Divergent - scene

From the start, Divergent falters by staying faithful to the novel’s vision of Chicago’s new social order.  The factions are a ridiculous concept, ill-thought out and impossible to justify both thematically and dramatically.  The idea that restricting free will and promoting conformity within such narrow confines, as well as rejecting the nuclear family, is so strained and untenable it’s to the movie’s credit that it doesn’t seek to explain or endorse it.  Instead, though, the concept sits there throughout, reminding us at every turn just how unlikely it all is.  (Though if ever a social order needed tearing down, this one fits the bill completely.)

With such a huge obstacle to try and overcome, Divergent never really gets off the ground, either as dystopian fable or cautionary science fiction.  Tris is a sympathetic main character, and without her the movie would be hard to watch, as most of the other characters operate almost independently of both the plot and each other.  Motivations are rote, and behaviours change largely without explanation – look out for Peter (Teller), a villain for ninety-five per cent of the movie, right until one of the final shots – while Tris’s family are used more as a plot device than as an emotional focal point.  There’s also the budding romance between Tris and Four, played out with so little deviation from formula that you could cut and paste them into any number of other movies and not notice the difference.

Where the movie does score points is in its creation of the world that Tris inhabits, with convincing differences between the locations of the factions – Abnegation is grey and nondescript, Erudite is futuristic and glamorous – and the semi-ravaged Chicago environs hinting at a more recent, more low-key war (a visit to a ruined fairground is a highlight).  There’s a pleasing mix of high and low-tech weaponry, and the various fight scenes are unfussy and effective (though Tris does seem to master things almost overnight once the plot needs her to).  Overall, Divergent is a movie with a strong visual style and the photography by Alwin H. Küchler is surprisingly fluid and well-framed for a movie with so many static, dialogue-heavy moments.  Neil Burger’s direction can’t quite keep a grip on the pace of the movie and the last thirty minutes feel rushed in comparison to what has gone before, but otherwise it’s a solid piece of work given the limitations of the material.

However, this is Woodley’s movie, pure and simple, a star-making turn that takes the promise she showed in The Descendants (2011) and validates that promise completely.  Wrestling with an awkwardly motivated character, Woodley takes Tris in hand and makes her truly ‘divergent’, displaying a range that fleshes out the character with unassuming ease.  (Tris does remain under-developed however, and it will be interesting where Woodley is able to take her – and how effectively – in the sequels.)  Woodley is a confident young actress and she deals persuasively with what is as much a physically demanding role as an emotional one.

Sadly, the rest of the cast don’t fare as well, with only James given more than a passing nod towards a fully-fledged character.  Courtney, Stevenson and Teller are wasted, while Judd and Goldwyn provide a minimum of parental guidance (and plot exposition) before being sidelined.   Kravitz and Elgort create new shades of bland (though to be fair, that’s largely down to the characters, and not them as actors), and even Winslet – usually convincing in whatever role she takes on – fails to add any depth to her character and is here reduced to the kind of sub-standard villain you’d expect in a cheap James Bond knock-off.

Rating: 5/10 – a bizarre hotchpotch of ideas about social programming, Divergent never overcomes the faults of its source material; fans of The Hunger Games looking for an interim fix before Mockingjay Part 1 will be disappointed, while newcomers who haven’t read the book will wonder what all the fuss is about.