The Mockingjay has taken wing. The Hunger Games are no more – taken down by the arrow of an upstart tribute. The Districts are rebelling. The Capitol is under siege. And Katniss Everdeen simply refuses to lie down and die like a good girl. President Snow is most displeased.

Waking traumatised and bewildered in the bowels of Districts 13’s underground stronghold, Katniss Everdeen – The Girl on Fire – cannot celebrate her survival. She burns with guilt at those left behind. Seeing Peeta as the Games’ unquestionable hero, Katniss fails to understand his sacrifice and rejects Head Gamemaker Plutarch’s explanation of the bigger picture. In desperation, as 13’s exasperated president questions misplaced faith in The Mockingjay, Plutarch allows Katniss a trip back to her district. The strength and serenity she drew from the forest were central to her sense of self – they sustained her soul as surely as they fed her family. But, in the aftermath of the games, her single arrowshot has shattered more than the Capitol’s enjoyment of its Quarter Quell broadcast. District 12 has been decimated by President Snow’s savage retaliation. With only the Victor’s Village left behind to taunt her.

Returning director Francis Lawrence showcases a very different aesthetic for this third outing of Suzanne Collins’ franchise. Gone are the parodic decadence of life in the Capitol and the manipulated reality of the gaming arenas. Mockingjay Part 1 plays out across more subdued canvasses – from the austerity of 13’s bunker and natural landscape above to the ravaged remains of Districts 12 and 8 – and credit is due for abandoning the melodrama without sacrifice of entertainment. Cast additions include Julianne Moore as President Coin – coolly spearheading 13’s campaign of war against Snow’s regime – and Natalie Dormer as media-weapon Cressida. The pair join Jennifer Lawrence and Elizabeth Banks (as Effie Trinket) to form a mighty quartet of female talent who capably steal the show and ensure that Mockingjay passes the Bechdel test with flying colours.

Rather than yield to the will of District 13’s propaganda machine, Katniss bends President Coin and team to her own. Her awkwardness before a lens and evident suffering make life difficult for Plutarch (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). He’d intended that a glossy Action Girl makeover and rousing speech would transform Katniss into the people’s champion. Instead, at the behest of Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), she is thrust back into the brutal reality of the uprisen districts where her nurturer/warrior instincts win hearts, minds and loyalties. In one haunting sequence she sings a lament known across the districts – The Hanging Tree – to the accompaniment of real Mockingjay song. The birds’ trilling a mimic of her infamous four note salute to a fallen friend. She will not forget. Her conscience bloodied by The Games and their aftermath. Plutarch’s crew capture not a shining beacon of PR hope but the lethal consequence of lighting a fire under someone with little left to lose.Mockingjaylaw

Along with doubts about President Coin’s thirst for change, Katniss is unsettled by a manipulative new talk show broadcast from The Capitol. Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) oozing across the airwaves – primped, powdered and ridiculous – to advocate a return to the old ways with a seemingly complaint Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), his special guest. She looks to familiar bonds to sustain her but her sister and mother are happy in 13 and her friendship with Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is under strain. Increasingly kinship is found among fellow tributes – from Finnick (Sam Claflin) and Haymitch – and unexpectedly from Effie too. The flamboyant media darling has struggled with the ugly conformity of underground life but for Katniss she rallies to become a true ally.

Though the Peeta-Katniss-Gale triangle still plays a part in Mockingjay it is sensibly treated as part of a wider dialogue. Mockingjay is a story about love – not a love story – Katniss as much burdened as blessed by the weight of it. For her love equals responsibility and, from the day her bow first fed her fatherless family to the moment she was airlifted from the arena’s killing clock, she has borne the weight of unparalleled obligation. The one straightforward relationship she shares is with President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and any other relationship is peripheral to theirs. It is that of a chess Grandmaster and prodigy – so locked in a game of wit and will that they eventually make move and counter move solely for the impact it will have on the other. The former gleefully sacrificing pawns for entertainment, the latter first guarding every piece as if precious but gradually learning a little mockingjay mimicry of her own…

Mockingjay Part 1 is a powerful, moving, penultimate chapter. While Francis Lawrence luxuriates in the extended runtime afforded by a two part finale he never pads the narrative. The impactful action sequences are thoughtfully rendered and artfully played out with the benefit of Phil Messina’s resonant production design and the prudent use of physical sets and props rather than endless green screen. Once again Jennifer Lawrence captivates. Every flinch of fear, revulsion and guilt delivered with subtlety and projected on that familiar face – contemporary Artemis with bow, strength and grace. Though Katniss Everdeen may not quite qualify as feminist icon she is unquestionably a refreshing and empowering example for audiences coming of age in a superhero-heavy world. Take note, Hollywood.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 opens on November 20th 2014