DIR: Neil Burger • WRI: Evan Daugherty, Vanessa Taylor • PRO: Lucy Fisher, John J. Kelly, Pouya Shabazian, Douglas Wick • DOP: Alwin H. Küchler • ED: Richard Francis-Bruce, Nancy Richardson • MUS: Junkie XL • DES: Andy Nicholson • CAST: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Maggie Q, Miles Teller, Zoe Kravitz, Ashley Judd
Whether you’re a preteen girl, an Alexander Payne fan, or just watch a lot of adaptations of bestselling novels, Shailene Woodley has likely made some impression on you as a charismatic up-and-comer. From her roots on television in The Secret Life of the American Teenager to her breakout roles in The Descendants and The Spectacular Now, Woodley is now making a play for the young adult dystopian franchise with Divergent, a title which, when accompanying this particular film, appears wildly ambitious.
Based on the first in a series of novels by Veronica Roth, Divergent is set in a future dystopian Chicago in which society is sorted into five groups, or factions, based on personality types: Abnegation, for the selfless; Amity, for the kind and pacifistic; Candour, for the honest; Dauntless, for the brave; and Erudite, for the intelligent. So far, so Harry Potter. Divergent’s version of the Sorting Hat sees the city’s 16-year-olds take a test determining the faction to which one is best-suited. While they are theoretically free to deviate from the recommended result at the subsequent choosing ceremony, they can be disowned and left factionless if they don’t fit into their new group – becoming, essentially, homeless vagabonds.
Divergent’s heroine, Beatrice ‘Tris’ Prior (Woodley), is told by the test co-ordinator, Tori, (Maggie Q) that her results are inconclusive, as she has the attributes of several factions, making her a Divergent type. Tori urges her to conceal this information, as Divergents are considered a threat to the status quo due to their unpredictable way of thinking. At the choosing ceremony, Tris joins the Dauntless faction, the soldier/warrior group who make up the law enforcement and military of Chicago. The film follows her subsequent battle to simultaneously stand out and fit in to her new role.
Divergent does things by-the-book, and unfortunately, that book (Divergent by Veronica Roth) is little better than a vague, elementary mish-mash of tropes from young-adult and science-fiction literature: A ‘Chosen One’; a beautiful, moody love interest; a bullying rival; a family, torn apart; secret identities and allegiances; political manoeuvring and corrupt government; and a rite of passage during which one must endure frankly startling violence. The sheer quantity of themes and motifs Divergent introduces means that none are developed with any nuance, and it feels like the film is trying to do far too much.
The premise is weak – while the idea of testing for and choosing one’s path in life from a relatively clueless teenage perspective makes for a passable allegory, it’s hard to grasp that the incredibly reductive faction system could actually hold sway for a hundred years, even in a ‘post-war’ culture of fear briefly alluded to in the opening narration. Although, when the characters presented in Divergent are as one-dimensional as the factions demand them to be, maybe it’s not that much of a stretch. It does, however, feel like lazy storytelling.
A number of stars, rising and risen, populate the cast of Divergent. The best of these, (aside from Woodley, who is doing her best with the material) is Kate Winslet as Jeanine Matthews, the icy, Aryan-looking Erudite leader with a steadfast belief in the faction system. Perhaps because of her status as a beloved English Rose, (or as the beloved American Rose of Titanic?) Winslet rarely appears in villainous roles, but if anything good comes of Divergent, it’s the proof that she is well-able to imbue even the flimsiest of evil characters with equal parts officious pomp and underlying malevolent intent. Sadly, the aforementioned weak characterisation of almost every character in the film at the expense of plot or narrative convenience, fails to elicit any other standout performances.
At a snip under 140 minutes, the film’s runtime is epically long – it matches that of Darren Aronofsky’s Biblical epic Noah, also out this week. Yet a little research reveals this kind of runtime is in line with its current generic contemporaries: Hunger Games: Catching Fire runs at a staggering 146 minutes, while Mortal Instruments: City of Bones clocks in at a slightly less bum-numbing 130 minutes. Is this some sort of attempt to correct our preteen girls’ technologically-shortened attention spans? Once again, it feels like lazy storytelling, throwing a dozen narrative elements at the wall to see what sticks and not editing down the difference.
While star power may draw audiences to Divergent – its leading man, Theo Jame,s may have the bone structure and smoulder to usurp Robert Pattinson on Tumblrs everywhere –the film’s creative choices, or lack thereof, fail to distinguish it in an already crowded genre. Divert your course elsewhere this week.
12A (See IFCO for details)
Divergent is released on 4th April 2014