The dreaded “Part 1” strikes again. Like Deathly Hallows and Breaking Dawn, here’s the final book of a beloved franchise split across two films, another first half that is heavy on character beats but bereft of action or, of course, any satisfying resolution. These pre-conclusions sit in their franchises like a speed bump, awkwardly slowing us to a crawl before a bombastic finale. Mockingjay at least offers an atmosphere of tension that spikes into occasional moments of terror, and a cast so laden with Oscars they probably use statuettes as doorstops. But it is still a comedown from the excellent Catching Fire and a placeholder until the bigger, bolder Part 2.
The traumatised centre of the film, and also its saving grace, is still Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen. She has always been standoffish, almost entirely devoid of wisecracks (as is the film) or any real interest in romance — her connection to both Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is more about mutual support than hearts and flowers. Yet Lawrence holds the screen even when terror-stricken, eyes darting about as if seeking to escape her entire world. Then again, there’s trauma left and right here, from District 12’s grisly destruction to Elizabeth Banks’ Effie Trinket mourning her lost wigs.
Katniss has been rescued to become figurehead of a rebellion, but her incapacity for pretence soon demands that she be sent out to witness the destruction of the Capitol and rouse her troops.
Cue visits to the Districts, and a number of elegantly mounted but all-too-brief action scenes as the rebellion bubbles further. That follows last film’s destruction of the Games arena and President Snow’s (Sutherland) brutal retaliatory strike against Katniss’ home, District 12, and his off-screen torture of now-hostage Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). But this is not yet a war movie; this is largely a film about people arguing in a bunker while, outside, others do all the dying.
Despite the world-threatening stakes, Katniss spends much of her time frantic for Peeta, who appears in Capitol broadcasts treasonously advocating appeasement. The end of Catching Fire revealed new and surprising allies, but Katniss remains visibly wary of their agendas. President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), leader of District 13, seems initially steely but shows moments of empathy for the traumatised Victors. Gamesmaker-turned-PR man Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) seems impishly relieved to have escaped — but it is his nature to manipulate, and his open fascination with Katniss’ straightforwardness suggests something less than honesty. And Gale finally gets something to do. Strangely, though, given the uniformly good performances, Gale, Finnick (Sam Claflin) and Coin all see their roles diminished from the book. Why split the book if not to allow for these subtle moments?
As a game of cat-and-mouse plays out against President Snow, there is incident but little progress. Even when Katniss gets what she wants, the results seem to twist to destruction and the world darkens a little further. But for all the tension director Francis Lawrence creates, and his striking images of conflict and friendship, there’s no sense of escalation until the final image drives Katniss to go to war. If only they had reached that point a couple of hours earlier.