A captivating new Hunger Games

There is always a lot to fear when we get to the third film in this sort of franchise. We start getting titles with several sets of punctuation. We start seeing big names cast in small roles. We start to fear that the story will run out of ideas and momentum before it runs out of box office appeal.

With The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, franchise creator and book trilogy author Suzanne Collins gave herself and her fellow film artisans a mountain to climb.

For one, the book on which it is based (now split in two – where both predecessors were condensed for film) was already in possession of a messy plot.

There’s also a significant shift in genre brought about in part because of the second big problem: there are no Hunger Games in this Hunger Games, which is just a little more serious than taking Quidditch away from Harry Potter.

Gone are the daft accusations of a Battle Royale rip-off (finally); instead we get a pot-boiling blend of bunker fever, post-traumatic stress disorder, teen angst, unrequited love, emotional blackmail and political manipulation, with a dash of brainwashing thrown in. So much of this takes part in the characters’ heads that the occasional interruptions of a bow and arrow or bomb come as near light relief.

And it all works its dystopic-teen-girl-hero socks off.

Whoever first cast Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss deserves even greater plaudits than they have already received.

In this penultimate film in the cult series, the additional talents of Julianne Moore and Game of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer aren’t required to boost an ailing franchise, they are desperately needed to hold the frame with Lawrence’s captivating performance.

They also stand against a delightfully gruff Woody Harrelson, an enigmatic Elizabeth Banks and one of the final turns from Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who is so effortlessly brilliant we feel the tragedy of his loss all over.

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Then there is Liam Hemsworth, finally given some screen time and now shining in a role that could so easily have become a simpering “but what about me?”

The first two films were good; much better than they possibly had been expected to be. But this is another level.

On one hand, it’s all about resetting the board for the final game, leaving us anxious for closure. On the other hand, though, this film, remarkably, stands alone. An audience member can (and this writer knows one who did) view it without having seen its prequels or reading the books and still relish the brilliant character interplay. This is something that only a series like Star Wars has managed to do with superb effect in the past.

This is intense drama. It is high romance of the Gone With the Wind style. And it is done so well that few will notice just how little action or even plot takes place other than shifting a few characters hither and thither.

This film excels, where the novel only just manages, in delivering a shift to a new genre, in giving characters real personalities rather than stereotypes.

Some will, and have, suggested the plot is so slight it didn’t warrant two films. But by doing less, this film achieves more.

This is a great stand-alone film. A remarkable achievement in any circumstance. Almost a miracle when surrounded by all that punctuation.

This review was first published on The New Daily.

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