In the wake of the annual Choosing Ceremony, Beatrice’s leap of faith onto the El Train, and a second jump into the literal unknown, propels her into a new life as ‘Tris’ – Dauntless’s controversial new member. The bold move attracts the admiration of ambitious Erudite leader Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet) and the concern of Tris’s mother Natalie (Ashley Judd). Having raised a child to obediently turn from her own reflection, she fears for her safety among the dynamic Dauntless recruits.
Thrust into the real world by her choice, Tris gets a first look at the city she will be tasked with defending. Director Neil Burger and his team took on the challenge of creating Veronica Roth’s vision of the crumbling concrete utopia/dystopia of her novels’ futuristic Chicago, and while there are unanswered questions in the sprawling cityscapes, he does succeed in sketching a history of violence and disquiet behind the smiling, ordered present of the shattered metropolis. More immediately coherent are the fear landscapes conjured by Burger and DP Alwin H. Kuchler. Tris and her peers are forced to confront their phobias in a series of simulations that first help them divine their rightful faction and ultimately hone their skill sets when training begins. These brutally beautiful glimpses of Tris’s inner life help her to articulate a personality and strength of character that was denied in her life as a daughter of Abnegation.
From an adrenalin spiking moment of reflection to a fingertip tapping a lifesaving escape through a pane of glass, the freedom she finds in the heightened reality of the tests offer us a portrait of a more nuanced young woman and Tris a chance to make a true connection. For how much fun would YA fiction (or our teenage years) be without the bedazzle of sexual tension and love? In a breathtaking night-flight across the city Tris is permitted to look at herself properly for the first time – a lovely motif of mirrored surfaces repeated across the narrative – and she wholeheartedly embraces this self-awareness. Only two points of discord let the empowering tone down: a glib handling of suicide, thrown in for impact then instantly tossed aside, and an assault within Tris’s fear landscape, which appears to have been ‘sexed up’ for the big screen. It is becoming tedious to the point of offence to see sexual violence treated as a condiment. Let’s be more creative than that, please?
Tris’s love/hate interest is mentor Four (Theo James) – familiar to some for his short but memorable time as Kemal Pamuk on Downton Abbey. In choosing to ally herself with embracers of fear, Dauntless, Tris has placed herself at the mercy of its most mercurial instructors – and they don’t come more mercurial than Four. He ticks all the teen dream boxes: he is ripped, rude, tattooed and mysterious. Not to mention the fact he comes prepackaged with a tragic backstory. This love story is where Divergent’s audience are most likely to diverge – the young of heart going with the flow and the older ,grumpier growing weary as our heroine and her trainer inevitably unite. Happily the path of true love is a bumpy one in dystopian Chicago and our star crossed lovers are soon thrust back into the cruel world as Winslet is finally allowed a little fun. Her dastardly plot takes centre stage in the end game with Jeanine Matthews recalling Marisa Coulter’s glacial empathy as the five ordered factions unravel.
While studios are hungry for the next Katniss Everdeen, Beatrice Prior is not that champion. Portrayed without guile by Woodley, she exemplifies the vulnerabilities of her youth and is far closer to a Harry Potter or Lyra Belacqua in character. Tris is an every-girl accidental hero – who discovers her own strength along that path – and this quality is endearing for a target audience who may also struggle with issues of identity. Divergent’s deceptively simple faction divisions address questions that everyone has wrestled with: What if I am not who my parents want me to be? What if I am not like everyone else? What will it mean to choose a different path? And the answers are no simpler here.
Lacking the trappings of blockbuster bling which helped thrust The Hunger Games into the mainstream, Divergent is nevertheless an exhilarating coming-of-age adventure tailor made for a younger teen audience. As the first of a trilogy, it may struggle against a tide of inevitable comparisons with other YA franchises, but strong leads, a spartan aesthetic and resonant themes keep it distinctive enough to stand alone.