Yet another entry in the ever increasing pantheon of two-part finales, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 has been anticipated with a sense of both excitement and trepidation. It kicks off the final chapter in what has been thus far a better than expected film franchise, and promises the culmination of major conflicts that have been boiling over since the first film. However, as we’ve seen before in both the Harry Potter and Hobbit series, these first-parters can sometimes feel obviously padded out, leading to stretches of time which feel artificially padded, and, at worst, boring. Mockingjay undoubtedly suffers from this problem to an extent, but makes up for it with some standout set-pieces, surprising maturity, and solid performances from a great ensemble cast.
Continuing the story of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) after she started a revolution and escaped the arena in the previous film, Mockingjay mainly focuses on her life in District 13, a secret underground city. This district, led by President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and Capitol turncoat Plutarch Heavensbee (the final role of the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman) desires to unite all other districts and wage open war against President Snow (Donald Sutherland). In order to achieve this, they need to create a banner under which everyone can stand, which transpires to be Katniss herself, a national hero whose symbolic importance to the revolution cannot be overstated. This leads to a propaganda campaign that is the main thrust of the film’s narrative. Katniss is sent to a variety of locations with a film crew (led by Natalie Dormer as Cressida, a hotshot director) in order to inspire hope. Whilst this allows for some excellent world-building, the overtly political plot is not particularly accessible for the younger viewers that will make up the majority of the film’s audience.
Neither is it consistently exciting. The main problem with Mockingjay is that where there is padding, it is obvious, and these sequences can grow a bit tiresome. The faith in the audience’s intelligence and maturity is refreshing, but it needed to be executed with a bit more dynamism. This would be more of an issue if it weren’t for the excellent cast that has been assembled, making the many dialogue-heavy scenes more engaging than they look on paper. Jennifer Lawrence continues to impress and she is flanked by some top-drawer actors, from Woody Harrelson reprising his role as Haymitch and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s restrained yet commanding performance reminding the world that his was a tragic loss. A scene towards the end, with the major players watching a Navy Seal-style raid from their base, is a standout, with Lawrence on devastating form.
When Mockingjay does get down to the business of action, it does so with aplomb. Francis Lawrence (no relation to his leading actress) has an eye for guerrilla warfare, and a midnight raid on a dam, set to a haunting tune sung (very well) by Jennifer Lawrence, is genuinely rousing stuff. It’s far and away the film’s best scene, with more than a hint of the Helm’s Deep battle from The Two Towers about it. It’s also surprising just how much explicit killing is shown on screen. Crowds of people are mowed down by machine guns, and whilst it’s not gory, the sheer amount of murder was effectively distressing. The consequences of rebellion, both positive and negative, are shown here with little gloss, commendable for an ostensibly ‘family friendly’ blockbuster.
It is this relatively unique maturity that sets Mockingjay apart from the rest of the blockbuster pack this year and the exciting action which it allows saves the film from getting overly bogged down in its padded out political sections. Whether the source material would have made a better single film we’ll never know, but Mockingjay Part 1 definitely does enough to keep me excited for next year’s true finale.