Dir: Francis Lawrence. US. 2014. 123mins

The Hunger Games Mockingjay Part 1

After the edgy adventure and action of the first two Hunger Games films, this initial instalment of the two-part conclusion takes the fantasy saga into bleak and downbeat territory as the ever-resourceful heroine Katniss Everdeen (an increasingly confident and assured Jennifer Lawrence) has to face up to the grim realities of her role as figurehead of a revolution. The glossy action that defined the first two films (at least in the ‘Hunger Games’ competition climaxes) is largely missing this time round as soul-searching and sad revelation take over from archery, fights and feistiness, giving the film a sombre tone that may impact on the return viewers that have made the series such a box office success.

The film lacks the colour and spectacle that defined the first two films that spent much of their story in the Capitol, but then this film is a tough war story about a world in conflict rather than the story of one young girl taking part in the Hunger Games.

That the film will be a massive box office draw is pretty much a nailed on certainty given the enduring popularity of the films (and the source books), though as with the Harry Potter and Twilight films splitting the adaptation of the final book does lead to Part 1 being very much the scene-setter for the more anticipated action-packed Part 2 experience (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 will be released in November 2015). But while this Part 1 is light on old-fashioned adventure it does offer up a tough – and at times moving - transition for its lead character.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, which opens worldwide in mid-November, draws together the more disparate elements of the first two films, draws breath and attempts to dwell on the grim realities of the rebellion that is simmering through Panem. The Games themselves may well have been destroyed but the fight for survival has moved from beyond the arena and Katniss is called upon to really be the personification of the Mockingjay symbol that is the icon of the revolution.

The shadow of Philip Seymour Hoffman hangs over the film to an extent (he died during shooting and the film is dedicated to him), and his character of rebellion spin-doctor Plutarch Heavensbee manages to have a strong impact on the film, with the subtext about media manipulation a strong aspect of the story. To an extent the film is overburdened with characters all struggling for screen space – old campaigners such as Donald Sutherland’s preening and evil President Snow features intermittently while Stanley Tucci’s slimy Caesar Flickerman has only a couple of scenes – which does tend to dilute things at times.

The film opens directly after The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, with Katniss rescued from the destruction of the Quarter Quell, but tormented by nightmares and finding it hard to adjust to life in the bleak underground quarters of the supposedly annihilated District 13. She is reluctant to take on the Mockingjay mantle, but after being encouraged to visit the ruins of her hometown in District 12 by Heavensbee and District 13’s President Coin (a striking and gently charismatic Julianne Moore) she reluctantly agrees to become the figurehead of the revolution. Her agreement, though, is based on there being a rescue mission for Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), who is being held and brainwashed by President Snow.

It is all pretty bleak stuff up to this point – she cries at the sight of burned skulls in the debris of District 12 and is manipulated (once again), this time to become the figurehead – but things take an engaging turn with the reappearance of style guru Effie Trinkett (the excellent Elizabeth Banks). Who had been ‘rescued’ from the Capitol but now suffering in the monotone underground world (as she describes it, surrounded by ‘jumpsuits’) and who embraces to challenge to help define Katniss’s ‘Mockingjay’ persona. These scenes also see welcome reappearance of Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), who also hates life down under, given there is a strict prohibition.

With Katniss packed back into a snug leather suit and sporting an array of arrows that would make The Avengers’ Hawkeye jealous the film hits a brief action passage as Katniss and her ever-present video crew (lead by Nathalie Dormer’s savvy young director Cressida) head to another equally ravaged District to show that the Mockingjay is still alive and leading the rebellion and get caught in a showdown against Capitol bombers. But unlike the previous films, Katniss spends little time in the fight, and before long she is back underground, tearful about the plight of others and not even involved in a mission to try and rescue Peeta and other captured tributes from the Capitol.

Jennifer Lawrence has really grown into the of Katniss, and has seen it develop for determined teen to a young woman having to face up to political machinations, the horror of war and the truth behind her affections. She is the charismatic presence that holds this rather flailing film together, and it is through her eyes that the true horror of President Snow’s rule is revealed.

A welcome addition to the cast is Julianne Moore as the steely President Coin, bringing just the right amount of gravitas and soul to a rather thinly drawn role. Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta is a remote presence for most of the film – only glimpsed in video broadcasts from the Capitol until the powerful final scenes – while Liam Hemsworth does what he can with his love-struck Gale Hawthorne, now transformed from doe-eyed country boy to loyal super-soldier.

Technically the film is spot on with the underground District 13 a tough utilitarian lair and the outside world essentially a battlefield. The film lacks the colour and spectacle that defined the first two films that spent much of their story in the Capitol, but then this film is a tough war story about a world in conflict rather than the story of one young girl taking part in the Hunger Games. It may disappoint young fans who relished the sheer fantasy verve that drove the first parts, but as a thoughtful and at times moving preamble to a tough climax, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 delivers

Production companies: Lionsgate, Color Force

Distribution: Lionsgate

Producers: Nina Jacobson, Jon Kilik

Executive producers: Suzanne Collins, Jan Foster

Co-producer: Bryan Unkeless

Screenplay: Peter Craig, Danny Strong, adapted by Suzanne Collins, based on the novel by Collins

Cinematography: Jo Willems

Editors: Alan Edward Bell, Mark Yoshikawa

Production designer: Philip Messina

Music: James Newton Howard

Main cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Natalie Dormer