The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 review: As robust and rule-breaking as Katniss

Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson return alongside Julianne Moore and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman for the dystopian sequel

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 In the latest instalment of the Hunger Games franchise there is no Hunger Games. With the series’ killer concept behind us, we’re instead presented with escalating disobedience, as a volatile society quivers on the cusp of all-out civil war. The hidden dissidents of Panem’s District 13 have been revealed and they’re rising up to take on the might of the Capitol. Once again it’s about crafting a heroine who can endear herself to the masses, but this time there’s much more than just personal survival at stake.

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Catching Fire‘s director Francis Lawrence returns for the third film, which finds Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) reeling from the trauma and deception of the last games, where she was plucked from the action by those who see her as the key to a successful rebellion. With her home district reduced to rubble, Katniss has been flown to District 13 and at first appears a broken woman. There she is reunited with her family and friend/love-interest Gale (Liam Hemsworth), along with her Hunger Games mentors Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and Effie (Elizabeth Banks), both of whom are drying out – from alcohol and elaborate personal grooming, respectively – and she’s introduced to the movement’s formidable leader, President Alma Coin (a grey-haired, yellow-eyed Julianne Moore).

Katniss’s petulant attitude and resistance to media coaching continues to cause her problems as she becomes the reluctant face of a revolution: the Mockingjay of the title. Just as Katniss is chosen to front the rebels’ propaganda films, the captured Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is used to counter these efforts via duplicitous communications sent out by the Capitol, which is still under the control of the dastardly President Snow (Donald Sutherland).

This largely faithful adaptation of the first part of the third and final novel has its challenges: while its predecessors had variety, ample action and scope, this adventure spends much of its duration down a hole, in the underground headquarters of the incendiary movement as they prepare to strike – at this stage it’s as much about hiding as fighting. There is action but Mockingjay – Part 1 lacks the scorching set pieces of the first two films, which also operated more effectively as individual instalments due to the games themselves which provided satisfying narratives within narratives. Because of this and in the absence of true closure, the latest feels more like a bridging film. 

Nevertheless Jennifer Lawrence excels, delivering pluck, emotional turmoil and conviction, and if Katniss’s preoccupation with Peeta can jar, given all that’s now at stake, it remains consistent with what we’ve seen before from this loyal, still-maturing character who won’t be ordered around or scripted, doesn’t care if she’s liked and who might be plenty compassionate but is sometimes inclined toward a blinkered personal view, shielding her temporarily from the bigger picture. As such she remains a thoroughly and convincingly teenaged heroine.

Francis Lawrence once again proves an able, if unspectacular hand at the helm and the casting still hits the spot (Moore and Game of Thrones star Natalie Dormer are fine additions here), while the dialogue strikes a deft balance between stirring speeches, summing-up and fleshing-out – with things left expertly, and excitingly, poised for the closing chapter.

The teething problems of this transitional effort aside, the Hunger Games is a franchise which continues to differentiate and distance itself from its action blockbuster and junior dystopia peers. The penultimate film is crammed with complex, well-drawn characters, and intelligent, effectively communicated ideas; it remains as robust and rule-breaking as its idiosyncratic protagonist.

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is in cinemas from 20th November