4 / 5
For the past three years, the third week in November has meant just one thing on the cinematic calendar – the latest Hunger Games instalment. All that has come to an end this Thursday with the arrival of the final instalment, Mockingjay Part 2.
In true Hunger Games style, it picks up moments after where Part 1 left off. War is raging in Panem between the rebels and President Snow (Donald Sutherland) in The Capital. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is recovering from the events of the previous film and, while appearing to go along with President Coin’s (Julianne Moore) plans for her to be just a figurehead, she has ideas of her own. She’s going to assassinate Snow. With some of her closest friends, she goes rogue to destroy the man she holds responsible for the devastation of her country and some of the people she loves.
That plunge straight into the action points towards more of what we’ve come to expect from the franchise. No credits, no music, just the title of the film and off you go. But there is a most definite difference in the way director Francis Lawrence handles the plot this time. Unlike before, there’s no pointers to the previous episode to help anybody who’s not familiar with the story, so seeing Part 1 – and preferably more recently than I have – is essential. There’s nothing to fill the gaps. And I guess you can’t blame him for assuming that his audience understands what they’re watching. The franchise isn’t short of fans, after all, so they’ll have seen at least one, if not all, of them. And those abrupt openings and assumption of knowledge make the series a prime candidate for marathons, back-to-back screenings of all four. At about two and a quarter hours a pop, that’s a full day!
Humour isn’t The Hunger Games’ stock in trade. It’s always taken itself seriously and this final episode is the most serious of the lot. It’s also heavier on dialogue than the others and shorter on action. As ever, there are some big themes and they can’t be treated lightly – truth, loyalty and betrayal are the ones to the forefront this time. Who can Katniss trust? Who is telling her the truth? There’s a pivotal scene between her and President Snow where he tells her something she doesn’t want to believe is true. But then he reminds her that they’d always agreed they’d never lie to each other …….
I watched the film just days after the Paris terrorist attacks and was taken aback by how uncomfortably topical the film was. Not that it was intentional, but the plotting to destroy the enemy with bombs in strategic places and the lines of refugees queuing outside Snow’s mansion in the hope of shelter came with a shiver of familiarity. By the time it’s released later this week, audiences may not find the resonance quite so strong, but for me it was disconcerting.
Although there’s fewer action sequences – and, indeed, less of the sweeping aerial shots beloved of Part 1 – they’re still powerfully effective. As Katniss and her crew infiltrate The Capital through a maze of underground tunnels, there’s one sequence that absolutely bristles with tension and suspense. Above ground, The Capital is littered with pods, ingenious booby traps on a massive scale – anything from automatic fire arms secreted in a wall to a sudden deluge of suffocating oil. And there’s The Mutts, which look like The Pale Man from Del Toro’s Pans Labyrinth, but with mouths like piranhas.
The most disappointing aspect of the film was the way a couple of characters are used – or not, as the case may be. Woody Harrelson has pitifully little to do, other than shadow Katniss and utter the occasional line of dialogue. It’s a criminal waste of somebody with his talent and on-screen presence. Worse still, Caesar Flickerman (the wonderfully coiffed and slimy Stanley Tucci) is reduced to a single scene cameo. And we miss him. The other actor we miss is the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, this being his last ever on screen role, playing President Coin’s right hand man and spin doctor, Plutarch Heavensbee. By all accounts, he’d filmed most of his scenes before his untimely death, so there’s only a flickering moment or two when you notice that director Lawrence had to work around the tragic loss of one of his actors. We see plenty of Hoffman at the start, but just glimpses at the end. He quietly fades to grey.
Despite its weaknesses – and they’re more evident than in the previous instalment – Mockingjay Part 2 is a fitting climax to the series and proves that it’s still better than its competitors. Fans will be more than happy to queue up for it but, if you’re coming late to it – very late, it has to be said – then investing a couple of hours or so in watching Part 1 will pay dividends. Otherwise, an awful lot will go over your head.