Despite their runaway critical and monetary success, I was left cold by the previous two entries in the Hunger Games series. I found plenty to admire about the movies (a truly complex female lead, an intriguing use of world building coupled with deftly balanced allegory) but was consistently let down by the film’s insistence on spending the lion’s share of their running time on the titular games. Lacking in both intensity and suspense, yet still taking up so much cinematic real estate, we finally jettison this aspect of the story in this the penultimate volume (whose full title is the unfortunate mouthful The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1) and focus on the political machinations and sly celebrity culture/military industrial complex commentary that kept me intrigued in the previous entries despite receiving short shrift.
When we last left our not-so-fearless leader Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) in Catching Fire, she was being medevac’d out of the Hunger Games arena (that she felled with a lightning charged fling of an arrow) by a group of friends and peers that were, unbeknownst to her, rebel conspirators, leaving behind her district batterymate Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) in the process. This film starts pretty soon thereafter, with Peeta being used as a pawn of the Capitol (and the stoically sleazy Donald Sutherland as President Snow) in an attempt to smoke Katniss out of hiding, where she’s been recruited as a symbol of the resistance (with their president played by Julianne Moore alongside Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jeffrey Wright – a great triumvirate of actors who bring a sense of purpose to this story) and is being groomed for propagandistic videos meant to rouse the proletariat of the other districts to rise up together to bring down those in power.
And while this is the first of the films to feature action sequences that I enjoyed (there’s a covert op intercut with a speech in the late stages of the film that is the most gripping set piece in the whole series), where the film really comes to life is in these discussions of how best to deploy Katniss as a symbol of the oppressed. She is being used by the rebels just as openly as she was when under the thumb of those in power, and she chafes at this new set of rules just the same. Katniss is a fascinating protagonist, operating out of a maternal sense towards those she loves instead of feeling any particular motivation as a political firebrand. Lawrence does a wonderful job with the character this time around, finding the strongest balance of strength and vulnerability yet.
I was fully prepared to have my hackles raised by the bifurcated nature of this final chapter. I have to say that I felt a sense of completeness from this chapter of the series that neither of the previous entries provided. Katniss has a definite beginning, middle and end to her arc in this story and events have changed the way our principle characters will interact with one another from here on out. It’s a lot more Empire Strikes Back than Deathly Hallows, leaving our characters at an apex of personal anguish and leaving me far more interested in seeing how their stories conclude than I ever felt previously.
For all the issues The Theory of Everything has, a lack of completeness is certainly not one of them. In standard biopic tradition, this movie takes the macro approach to Stephen Hawking’s life story and suffers much the same way most boilerplate cinematic biographies tend to for it. Instead of focusing intently on one aspect of his life, it attempts a wider view that dilutes any authorial voice from taking root. Take a film like this year’s flawed yet admirable Jimi: All Is by My Side for example. Its laser-focus on a brief patch of time in Hendrix’s life allows the film to spend time with its character instead of hopping from one benchmark moment to the next, meaning that despite a narrower focus it feels more expansive and thoughtful in its comprehension of the human being behind the legend. We never get that from Theory, instead settling for career Cliffs Notes that take us from Hawking’s college days, to blossoming romance, to his diagnosis, and every career or personal benchmark that comes in between.
This is a shame when the lead performances are as stellar as they are here. Both Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne are marvelous as Jane and Stephen Hawking, fully inhabiting these roles and imbuing them with a sense of pathos that the film itself doesn’t support. Jones’ Jane is stoically supportive, only allowing the veneer of her genuine strength to drop momentarily – it’s a tough part when paired against a physical transformation as stark as Redmayne’s, and she pulls it off nicely. Redmayne does marvelous work, fully inhabiting the role of Hawking and never skimping on the emotional content even as his mobility becomes increasingly limited – a scene late in the movie where Redmayne’s anguish is only conveyed through his eyes is good enough to net him an Oscar. Unfortunately, the movie they’re giving these valiant efforts in support of has no similar interest in delving into the pathos of a relationship as tortured as theirs was. While the filmmakers should be lauded for delving into the fact that their marriage could not sustain itself (a lesser film would’ve elided this fact), the pacing and omnipresent score (overbearingly asserting itself constantly) work in tandem to make these very human foibles feel like obstacles easily overcome. In doing so, a disservice is performed against both the human being and the scientist, with neither being fully explored. It’s the kind of treacly Oscar season biopic that will reap in award nominations only to subsequently be forgotten shortly thereafter.