If you enjoyed the The Hunger Games and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, then I have some potentially bad news for you: You may not find this penultimate chapter in the story of reluctant but incendiary rebel icon Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) agreeable with your palette. That’s not to say that Mockingjay – Part 1 is a bad film – far from  it, as it’s actually a rather good one – it’s just that one of these things is not like the others.

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The core difference comes in that little “Part 1” titular addendum. Whereas the previous installments followed a set blueprint – character introduction, family trouble, Katniss training/preparing, action-y sequences in the Games, ????, profit – to tell complete standalone stories, Mockingjay – Part 1 only focuses on the first few of those steps. But thanks to some deft choices by director Francis Lawrence, what we’re left with is an intensely dramatic and grim character study, heavy on the thematic observations but skirting fairly lightly on the actual colourful fisticuffs and pyrotechnics that punctuated the first two films with regularity. This may admittedly test the patience of some filmgoers who have come to expect something different though.

When I heard that this adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ final novel would be split in two, I was puzzled as to where that bifurcation would occur. Mockingjay is almost universally recognized by readers (me included) as the worst of Collins’ novels, with its first half filled with a poor and grating characterization of Katniss as a whiney, lovesick teen, while all its gonzo splash-page moments are reserved for the last act. Lawrence gets around this problem by having the film not just ditch the schoolgirl histrionics (phew!) to focus on the real traumatic ordeal that Katniss is going through after the events of the Quarter Quell seen in Catching Fire, but also by having the film’s climax be an almost entirely emotional one, rather than an explosive action finale. It’s a mostly successful solution, even if the ending’s lack of narrative culmination leaves you acutely aware that this most definitely still just half a movie.

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But while it may not have the rounded-off finality or popcorn munching action beats of its predecessors, Mockingjay – Part 1 bristles with an emotional texture that those films cannot match due to the characters now finally getting the time needed to breathe. Or hold their breath, to be more accurate. What the film lacks in Katniss bow-slinging action – she’s actually only ever involved in a single action sequence – it makes up with vertebra crushing tension and crackling verbal sparring as the film changes beats from a sci-fi action adventure to a political potboiler where propaganda is far more efficacious than a well placed arrow. This revolution will most definitely be televised and it’s Katniss Everdeen that will be our host.

Set mostly in the oppressively sparse underground bunkers here – even the usually bubblegum pop-ish Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) has shed her day-glo plumage – that make up the remnants of District 13 led by Julianne Moore’s utilitarian President Alma Coin, Katniss is asked to act as the rebellion’s lightning rod, as she stars in a series of propaganda videos – “propos” they’re termed by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s rabble-(rebel?)rousing ex-Capitol man Plutarch Heavensbee. She will be a living symbol for the harangued Districts to rally around in the ever-escalating fight against the jackbooted Capitol.

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Katniss’ unease and ineptitude with play-acting rebel leader instead of just being a rebel is made even still more difficult by the fact that she is still reeling from not just being plucked away from TV beau Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) in the previous Games but also discovering that he’s still alive and seemingly become the mouthpiece for Donald Sutherland’s quietly sadistic President Snow, essentially pitting the couple against each other in this war of words.

What this means is that while Katniss spends most of her time facing off against nothing more than the camera crew led by Natalie Dormer’s feisty documentarian Cressida, she’s still leading the charge, even if just in a figurative sense. Instead, Francis Lawrence has the inhabitants of the various downtrodden Districts handle all the heavy lifting when it comes to the actual physical confrontations, but even these moments are shot with a surprising starkness. This isn’t the trident hurling, death cloud comic book-like action beats in the previous films, but a grim, emotionally charged battle against overwhelming odds, with Jennifer Lawrence perfectly echoing that emotion as the beating heart of the movie.

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The young Oscar winner has always been the franchise’s strongest asset, and she lives up to that and more as she’s given the appropriate platform to truly put her prodigious talents on display. Katniss’ story here is one of emotional turmoil and Lawrence easily runs the full gamut of crippling post-traumatic stress, belief-rattling shock, horrific tragedy, and of course, an incendiary hunger for justice and freedom. She is the “Girl On Fire”, of course, both in terms of the narrative as well as Lawrence’s white-hot, awards-worthy performance. It’s just a pity that due to the forced structure of the script, Lawrence is barely more than a bystander for the film’s “finale”.

Luckily, most everybody else in her menagerie also give solid turns, though Liam Hemsworth’s Gael, who is finally given more to do than just be a vague third point in a love triangle, still feels unconvincing. But this is the Lawrence show, both Jennifer and Francis: what she brings in thespian chops he answers in astute, intuitive direction.

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As somebody who’s read the books, I know just how crazy events are going to get – The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is that fabled darkest night before the dawn (only here that light will probably come more from an explosive firestorm than a sunrise). Having this quieter moment to raise the character’s emotional stakes before that insanity happens could be a massive payoff. Yes, this chapter may be too grim, or too slow a burn for some and the franchise’s usual opulent pageantry being replaced by the uniform drabness of District 13 does take this into far more familiar dystopian territory, but it’s also an emotionally mature, politically savvy study in iconography led by one of the finest young actresses at the top of her game that should leave you hungry for the final installment.

Last Updated: November 20, 2014

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Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions - but very little sleep - I've been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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