As a reader of the book by Veronica Roth, I was excited to see how the story set in dystopian Chicago was going to translate to celluloid. Having missed it in the cinema, I recently picked up the blu-ray and settled in to watch the tale unfold before me in glorious HD.
We follow Beatrice Prior (Shaliene Woodley) as she take the simulation test that tells 16 years olds which of the five factions that society is split into her personality is most suited to. Having not been given a clear result and told she is the titled Divergent, a person who has equal affinity for more than one faction, she must decided whether to remain with her parents in Abnegation, the self-less, or transfer to one of the others come choosing day. Beatrice makes an unexpected choice and decides to joins Dauntless, the brave, and is soon caught up in their brutal initiation program. Tris, as she will now be known, soon gets on the wrong side of tyrannical young leader Eric, played by Jai Courtney, but starts to form a bond with head-trainer Four (Theo James) who lead them through combat training, complete with fist-fights and knife-throwing, before moving on to simulation tests, where recent transfers have to conquer their fears. Four tutors Tris how to complete the tasks without revealing her true Divergent nature to the Erudite, the intelligent, testers who are developing simulation serum to control human nature. Tris passes, and along with all other Dauntless, is injected with this new serum which can exert mind control. I won’t reveal the remaining act of the story for those who have not seen the film but the final third is full of action and story building towards the release of the next instalment Insurgent set for 2015.
Shaliene Woodley’s portrayal of Tris is the standout of the movie, with her able to depict both the selfless, innocent Abnegation at the beginning of the film and able to show her developing confidence and becoming a fearless, strong woman once with the Dauntless. She manages to become a believable heroine with some of the action pieces that were shown, especially in the capture-the-flag sequence which is amazingly shot in the dark around the Navy Pier Ferris Wheel, while also remaining vulnerable and relatable. Woodley has good chemistry with her love interest Four, co-headliner Theo James, and the interaction between them grows from student-teacher to something more without seeming forced. James was different than I imagined Four from the book , being cast much older, but was able to show the multi-faceted sides to his personality and able to bring the sense of authority to role that may have lacked with a younger actor.
The supporting cast is also first-rate, with Kate Winslet’s Jeanine and Jai Countney’s Eric providing opposite adversaries for Tris to overcome. Winslet, managing a strong performance in her limited screen time, provides the intellectual, icy antagonist that will surely be a larger role in the upcoming movies whereas Countney’s Eric is brutal, tormenting the new initiates and revelling in his position of power. Other Dauntless new comers, played by Zoe Kravitz (Christina), Miles Teller (Peter) and Ben Lloyd-Hughes (Will), are not particularly fleshed out but provide both friends and enemies and added interactions for our heroine to navigate through while dealing with the new surroundings and situations.
Neil Burger’s adaptation is relatively true to the source novel and highlights some of the key scenes the stood out in the book. Including the iconic zip-line descent and the familiar train jumping sequence, the action is fast paced and stylish showing how exhilarating it must have been for Tris to experience these for the first time. The costume design is a strong point and has managed to clearly distinguish each faction, while hinting at the ideals each stands for within the wider society. Dauntless are clad in darker colours and tougher materials showing the perceived hardness of their characters, while Erudite are shown in business-like attire to reflect their efficient nature.
Many will compare this to the other female-fronted young-adult adaptation, The Hunger Games, and find this lacking but I feel this is an enjoyable film that is worth watching. While the screenplay is well written the third act does feel slightly rushed with more time being spent building the world and people who inhabit it rather than the climatic action-filled conclusion. Good performances and slick cinematography throughout raise this from the average sci-fi actioner and this is a great opening chapter to what is going to be a highly-successful franchise.