Review: Jennifer Lawrence remains the beating heart of intense ‘Mockingjay Part 1’

As much as “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1” is about anything, it is about Jennifer Lawrence.

I don't mean that it's about Katniss Everdeen, the character she's playing, either. Sure, Katniss is once again front and center as we see the aftermath now of what happened at the end of the Quarter Quell games in “Catching Fire,” with Katniss poised to be the face of the revolution. But when I say this is a film about Jennifer Lawrence, I mean it's about her fame, the pressure that she's under to make this franchise work because of what it means to Lionsgate, and the way she continually manages to deliver moments that feel authentic, whether they are or not, even under the unforgiving microscope of fame.

It's also a pretty good yarn, told with a great deal of energy, packed with actors who are doing everything they can to sell what is, at this point, fairly familiar material. There are a lot of dystopias these days, and with all of this serious-faced scowling about the end of the world, the only way for one of these things to stand out is to do it on a human level, and that's where the “Hunger Games” series has managed to succeed from the first film to now. What Francis Lawrence brought to the table with “Catching Fire” was a more aggressive visual storytelling style that helped flesh out the world around the characters who were very well-cast by Gary Ross in the first place. That's no small thing, either. Ross is the Chris Columbus of the franchise, the guy who actually put together that cast that's paying off so beautifully for the studio at this point, and without his input, there's no guarantee they could have gotten this thing to work. At this point, though, Lawrence is going to be the one remembered as the primary director of the series, and it's going to buy him a lot of freedom to do what he wants after this.

One of the things I like about “Mockingjay” is how it throws out the format of the first two films, eliminating any games from the narrative. Well, actually, that's not true. The entire film is a big sick game between Katniss, President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), President Snow (Donald Sutherland), and the imprisoned Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who was left behind during the big escape at the end of the previous film. It's just that the games they're playing now are on a different board and have very different stakes. The film explores the way propaganda is used to set the stage for a conflict, and considering this is a mainstream franchise aimed primarily at young audiences, it's actually a pretty interesting take on how image matters as much as action in a media age. Peter Craig and Danny Strong's script is a fairly straightforward adaptation of the source material, and it moves along at a fairly aggressive clip.

Lawrence is the show, of course, and she more than holds her own. At the start of the film, Katniss is in shock, and for the first 20 minutes or so, Lawrence holds everything back. Once she gets angry, though, Katniss comes blazing back to life, and there are a number of scenes that she has where Lawrence proves again why she has become such a big movie star so fast. There is something so grounded and real about her, and counting on that as something that will connect with an audience is exactly the same thing that's going on with Katniss in the film. President Coin knows people will believe in Katniss, and so does Lionsgate, and in both cases, the stakes must feel like life or death.

Because this is now a world at war, situations have changed for most of the characters, and one of the things “Mockingjay” does well is give time to some of the secondary characters to show us just how far things have changed. I thought Woody Harrelson was great, if underused, and Elizabeth Banks manages to find some sort of dignity for the stripped-down Effie Trinket. Peeta gets benched for most of the movie, popping up in broadcasts from the Capitol, while Gale (Liam Hemsworth) finally starts to emerge as a character, and a genuine option for Katniss. Sam Claflin has some nice moments as a humbled Finnick Odair, and I'm starting to get curious about what Claflin's going to do when he finally gets a strong lead role to tear into. I must admit that I got emotional a few times when Philip Seymour Hoffman was onscreen, and not because of any one particular thing he was doing in the film. It was more about realizing just how final it is, his exit, and how there are not going to be more surprises from him in the future, more indelible moments. I like that the Plutarch we meet in this film is a very different person from the sinister gamesmaster from the second film, since that was all a cover, and Hoffman does a nice job of underplaying what could have been big and arch and obvious.

There are new characters, including a camera team assigned to Katniss to help create spots that can be used to rally people to the cause of the revolution. Natalie Dormer is Cressida, the director, and Elden Henson and Wes Chatham play the cameramen who are right there next to Katniss in battle. Dormer does a nice job with what could have been a very silly role, having to ask Katniss tough questions at emotional moments, always aware of how things play on-camera, always pushing Katniss to bigger reveals.

The film ends at a particularly ugly moment, but it's a good emotional cliffhanger. I feel like they're close to getting this series right, and how “Mockingjay Part 2” lands its punch is going to determine how people remember the series as a whole. If they can pull it all together, it will be exciting, but it's obvious at this point that these people all mean this deeply. These movies have a real pulse, and that makes all the difference. I see lots of competent professional films that feel like movies but that never quite come fully to life, and with the “Hunger Games” films, there is something alive and vital about them. I remain impressed, and I'm excited to see how they bring it all home a year from now.

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1” is in theaters on Friday.