The new gla­di­a­tors

This ex­cit­ing adap­ta­tion of Suzanne Collins’s hit novel, the first in a tril­ogy, punches all the right buttons, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film Reviews -

HOL­LY­WOOD RE­ALLY needs this poor wee film to de­liver. With Harry Pot­ter over and Twi­light wind­ing down – and John Carter ex­plod­ing on im­pact – the dream fac­tory is des­per­ately search­ing for an­other durable fran­chise. There’s no pres­sure on the folk be­hind this adap­ta­tion of Suzanne Collins’s young-adult best­seller. It’s just the very sur­vival of the in­dus­try that’s at stake.

Well, Gary Ross, the solid tal­ent be­hind Pleas­antville and Se­abis­cuit, has done a bang-up job on the first episode of the pro­jected tril­ogy. The nov­els cer­tainly tread upon fa­mil­iar ground. The se­ries imag­ines a dystopian Amer­ica where teenage cit­i­zens are made to fight to the death for the en­ter­tain­ment of tele­vi­sion view­ers. Such pas­tiches are as old as the game show it­self. We think of The Run­ning Man, Roller­ball, Se­ries 7: The Con­tenders and, most con­spic­u­ously, Bat­tle Royale. But Ross and Collins have found new in­gre­di­ents to spice up the an­cient recipe.

The strong, un­showy Jen­nifer Lawrence stars as Kat­niss Everdeen, res­i­dent of a ru­ral min­ing town that, de­spite ex­ist­ing many decades in the fu­ture, seems to have slipped from a Dorothea Lange pho­to­graph. In a scene that of­fers creepy echoes of Shirley Jack­son’s great story The Lot­tery, Kat­niss watches aghast as her young sis­ter is ran­domly se­lected to rep­re­sent the dis­trict in the tit­u­lar glad­i­a­to­rial combat. Kat­niss vol­un­teers to take the child’s place and, ac­com­pa­nied by the baker’s son (the al­ways lik­able Josh Hutch­er­son), is trans­ported to the cap­i­tal city for in­ter­views, train­ing and in­doc­tri­na­tion.

The film-mak­ers take a risk by de­lay­ing the char­ac­ters’ propul­sion into con­flict for close to an hour. For the most part, the gam­ble pays off. All movie ver­sions of the fu­ture look like the present or the past. This in­car­na­tion ap­pears to take place in an an­te­room of London’s Blitz Club dur­ing the early days of the New Ro­man­tic move­ment: frilly skirts; huge bows, teased pink hair. These prepara­tory skir­mishes are adorably camp and, as well as sewing seeds that will ger­mi­nate in later episodes, of­fer a nice con­trast to the damp, ru­ral grit that char­ac­terises the combat se­quences.

Ross has had to work darn hard to re­tain that 12A certificate. Knives are bran­dished. Young peo­ple are slaugh­tered ruth­lessly. Nonethe­less, thanks to fast cut­ting and coy cam­era an­gles, The Hunger Games just about man­ages to re­main within the fam­ily en­clo­sure. Lit­tle blood is spilt, but sea­soned ac­tion fiends will not feel them­selves overly short-changed.

It is, how­ever, Lawrence’s tasty per­for­mance that re­ally sets the film apart. While her op­po­nents in the leafy glade that con­sti­tutes the arena have the psy­cho­log­i­cal depth of char­ac­ters from Tekken, Lawrence makes some­thing de­light­fully con­flicted of Kat­niss: she is as hard as di­a­mond, but guiltily en­joys be­ing dolled up by the public re­la­tions wonks.

On this ev­i­dence, we will al­most cer­tainly be wel­com­ing her back for an­other two episodes. Hol­ly­wood can breathe a lit­tle eas­ier.

The game show from hell: Jen­nifer Lawrence as Kat­niss Everdeen and Stan­ley Tucci as Cae­sar Flick

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