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Hunger Games Mockingjay Part 1, The

D: Francis Lawrence / 123m

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Sam Claflin, Jeffrey Wright, Mahershala Ali, Willow Shields, Natalie Dormer, Stanley Tucci

Having been rescued from the Quarter Quell Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence), Finnick Odair (Claflin), and Beetee (Wright) find themselves in the underground fortress that is the new District 13, and which has been built beneath the ruins of the old District 13. While Finnick despairs the loss of his lover, Annie Cresta, and Beetee sets about helping the district leaders with their plans to take the fight to the Capitol, Katniss is asked to become the Mockingjay, the symbol of the resistance. She refuses, blaming the District 13 leaders – headed by President Alma Coin (Moore) and ex-gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Hoffman) – for not trying to save Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson), Annie, and Johanna Mason who are all prisoners in the Capitol.

Heavensbee decides it would be better to convince Katniss another way, and he arranges for her to visit the ruins of District 12. There she sees the devastation and the remains of her people and is visibly shocked by what’s happened. She agrees to become the Mockingjay but on the condition that the captured Victors are rescued and granted full pardons. Coin agrees and Katniss becomes a part of the rebel propaganda campaign, appearing in videos that are broadcast across the districts and eventually, into the Capitol. These videos lead to uprisings in some of the other districts, including the destruction of the dam that provides the bulk of the Capitol’s electrical power.

An attack on District 13 follows but the underground fortress isn’t breached. Coin sends a team led by security chief Boggs (Ali) and Gale (Hemsworth) to rescue the captured Victors. They find their way in with ease, helped immeasurably by Beetee’s jamming of the Capitol’s security signals. But when Beetee’s transmissions are interrupted, and President Snow himself reveals his awareness of the rescue attempt, the safety of Gale and Boggs and the rest of the team hangs in the balance.

Hunger Games Mockingjay Part 1, The - scene

It’s a rare movie in any franchise that opens with two scenes showing characters in utter despair, but The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 is so confident in its set up, and what it needs to do in this necessarily darker episode, that these two scenes act both as a brief summation of where the story has been and where it is now. It’s also exposition given added weight by an emotional heft that exposition generally doesn’t carry, and gives notice that the writers – Danny Strong and Peter Craig – aren’t going to take the easy route in adapting the first part of Suzanne Collins’ final book in the Hunger Games trilogy.

In fact, this is an even more carefully assembled, and thought out, screenplay than the one that made The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) so effective. Here, the political machinations are more exposed, the betrayals and compromises crueller than ever, and Katniss’ sense of being alone (even with Prim (Shields) and her mother, and Gale to support her) heightened even more. It’s a movie that looks at the loss of hope and the suspension of faith, and emphasises the way in which personal sacrifice almost always comes at a cost. It’s a bleaker, more anxiety-ridden movie, and in being true to the original source, furthers the series’ own integrity.

The introduction of President Snow’s District 13 counterpart, Alma Coin, is handled incredibly well, with Moore proving an excellent choice in the role. Fans of the book will know where the narrative takes President Coin, but for now the script provides very subtle clues as to the nature of that direction, and Moore gives a clever, finely tuned performance that provides a perfect foil for Sutherland’s spider-like turn as the malevolent Panem president. (It’s a shame that the best verbal sparring is reserved for Snow and Katniss – seeing Coin and Snow exchanging words would be an intense and fascinating encounter.) Moore isn’t on screen a lot but when she is, Coin is an enticingly vivid presence.

But the focus is, of course, on Katniss, and the way in which she deals with this new direction in her life. Lawrence is an intelligent, perceptive actress and she handles the demands of the role – again – with a fierce determination that matches the character and the journey she’s making. Katniss may not be the most emotionally stable young woman you’re ever likely to meet, but she has an inner strength that Lawrence brings to the fore with accomplished ease. Watching her reaction to the horrors of a devastated District 12 shows just why it’s now so difficult to imagine anyone else in the role, so completely does she inhabit the part.

The rest of the characters share varying amounts of screen time, with Gale having a larger part to play this time round, and Effie Trinket (Banks) also benefitting from an expanded role (that wasn’t in the novel; Banks’ previous performances convinced Collins the character needed to be more involved in the final two movies). A newly sober Haymitch (Harrelson) proves less effective as a character, but the actor rises to the challenge of providing the same (required) turn in each movie. Heavensbee reveals himself to be a clever, thoughtful manipulator, and Hoffman has fun with the role, a genial smirk never too far from his features. The relationship between Katniss and Prim continues in the same fashion as before, with their mother still given a background role, and Katniss’ affection for Gale is barely mentioned, leaving her (presumed) love for Peeta to take centre stage. This dynamic, always in doubt during the previous two movies, begins to coalesce into something more tangible here, and leads to one of the most heart-rending, and shocking, scenes in the series so far.

Returning to the director’s chair, Lawrence continues to be a wise choice for the hot seat, and keeps the focus on the characters and their relationships to each other, emphasising the emotional ups and downs that Katniss has to overcome, and the difficult path she has to take as the rebels’ figurehead. Lawrence also keeps the action on point, each sequence plotted and designed for maximum effect, and he brings the other featured districts to life with a well thought out economy. There’s another stirring score courtesy of James Newton Howard, and Jo Willems’ photography maintains the visual style of the previous movie while adding a grittier sheen to things.

Rating: 9/10 – with one more movie to go, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 is a memorable, thrilling addition to the series, and perfectly sets up Part 2; with a handful of superb performances, and a director firmly in control of the material, this instalment stands as a perfect example of how to make a bridging chapter relevant and exciting in equal measure.