This week’s films reviewed

Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

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The latest installment of action-packed dystopian thriller The Hunger Games

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY - PART 1 (12A)

The spectre of war casts a long shadow over the penultimate chapter of the blockbusting dystopian thrillers based on Suzanne Collins’ bestselling trilogy.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 follows the lead of the Harry Potter and Twilight sagas by cleaving the final book in two.

This decision – driven as much by greed as artistic necessity – results in a dark, brooding two hours of self-sacrifice almost completely devoid of the propulsive action sequences that distinguished the earlier films.

Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of reluctant heroine Katniss Everdeen, a pawn in the battle of wits between the money-rich Capitol and the impoverished Districts, remains a mesmerising constant.

She delivers another emotionally bruising performance, especially in early scenes when her battle-scarred teenager stares over the smouldering ruins of her beloved District 12, littered with charred skeletons of friends and neighbours who were incinerated as they fled.

This hellish vision brings Lawrence to her knees, unable to hold back racked sobs of pain.

The floodgates open and screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong take their time channelling her aching sense of loss into an all-consuming rage that will set the Capitol ablaze this time next year.

“If we burn, you burn with us!” she bellows down a camera lens at President Snow (Donald Sutherland).

We don’t doubt it.

Katniss barely survived the Third Quarter Quell.

Separated from fellow tributes Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and Johanna (Jena Malone), who are being held in the Capitol, Katniss gathers her strength in a secret underground complex.

Her allies include childhood friend Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), chaperone Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), architect of the rebellion Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and District 13 President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore).

The people of the Districts look to Katniss to lead them against President Snow and the armed forces of Panem.

“We’re going to stoke the fire of this revolution that this Mockingjay started,” growls Plutarch, commissioning a series of propaganda videos directed by Cressida (Natalie Dormer), with Katniss as the reluctant star.

Meanwhile, Snow initiates his own forceful media campaign fronted by Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) and a clearly disoriented Peeta.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is the calm before the storm of full-blown conflict.

It’s a slower burn than previous films and lacks some of the on-screen electricity since Katniss and Peeta are separated, but Lawrence burns bright as the eponymous “girl on fire”.

Effie’s role is expanded from the book to bring some comic relief to the subterranean gloom.

“Everything old can be made new again – like democracy!” she chirrups.

Maybe so, but as Part 1 makes abundantly and agonisingly clear, you have to sacrifice innocent lives to sweep away the past.

RATING: 8.5/10

THE HOMESMAN (15)

A frontier woman’s work is never done in Tommy Lee Jones’ bleak and compelling feminist western.

Not only does a mid-19th century miss have to cook and clean, she is also expected to pretty herself to attract a surly suitor to waltz her down the aisle in a society where men and pistols hold sway.

In the case of The Homesman’s unconventional, spunky heroine, she also has to till the land, manage finances and compensate for a town full of cowardly, incompetent husbands, who put their own needs ahead of the women by their side.

Based on the novel of the same name by Glendon Swarthout, Jones’ film trots through the parched prairies and rolling hills of the 1850s Midwest in the company of two unlikely saviours.

One is a middle-aged spinster, whose grit, resolve and straight-talking principles mark her as a rebel of her sex; the other is a grizzled claim jumper of ambiguous intent, who narrowly avoids swinging by his neck.

In a pleasing subversion of gender and genre stereotypes, it’s women who drive the narrative, who act rather than react, and ultimately leave an indelible mark on our heart.

Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) owns a ranch and a sizeable plot of land on the outskirts of a close-knit Nebraska community.

Suitors repeatedly reject her because they consider her ugly, but Cuddy continues to plough her own furrow.

Three local women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter) show signs of insanity and Reverend Alfred Dowd (John Lithgow) proposes that one of the husbands should take the wives to a mission in Iowa run by Altha Carter (Meryl Streep).

When the gutless spouses fail to get behind the plan, Cuddy volunteers to drive the wagon instead.

“You’re as good a man as any man hereabouts,” Reverend Dowd compliments her.

En route, Cuddy rescues a claim jumper called George Briggs (Jones) from hanging, on condition that he helps escort the three women to the Missouri River.

The unlikely travelling companions head east, encountering a shady hotel proprietor (James Spader), a thieving cowboy (Tim Blake Nelson) and a young woman (Hailee Steinfeld), as yet unmarked by the lawlessness of the era.

The Homesman repeatedly takes risks with tone, pacing and plotting, some of which don’t pay off, but Jones’ gambles lasso our attention.

Swank is breathtaking in a textured role that should be rewarded with an Oscar nomination next year, and she is strongly supported by the writer-director.

Jones doesn’t shy away from the horrors faced by women, catalysed by nightmarish scenes of rape and infanticide.

Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who galloped to Brokeback Mountain with Ang Lee, captures the stark, untamed beauty of the godforsaken land in stunning images that linger in the memory.

RATING: 7/10