‘The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes’ review: sings a pleasingly familiar tune

A rip-roaring return to the classic blockbuster franchise, despite no Jennifer Lawrence

Following the mammoth success of the four-film adaptation of The Hunger Games trilogy, a big-screen version of author Suzanne Collins’ prequel The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes was inevitable. But how will the young adult saga fare without Jennifer Lawrence as rebel leader Katniss Everdeen?

This new story focuses on the young life of Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth), the man who becomes the despotic President Snow, memorably portrayed by Donald Sutherland in the previous films. After a brief childhood flashback in which Snow and his sister see a starving man hack off the arm of a cadaver, we’re introduced to him as an 18-year-old from an affluent family somewhat down on its luck following the death of his father. Snow, a resident of the rich, establishment Capitol city regardless of his low status, is tasked with mentoring one of the “tributes” for The Hunger Games, a reality-show where 24 youths fight for survival until one remains.

As in the first books and films set 64 years later, these tributes are a pair of residents from each of the 12 poor districts outside the Capitol, areas that had unsuccessfully rebelled in a war – referred to as the “dark days” – 10 years before. Snow’s District 12 tribute, singer Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler) has the pugnacious spirit and charm to compete in the games but the pair must work together while sometimes breaking the rules to have any chance of her winning.

The Hunger Games
Viola Davis plays Head Gamemaker Volumnia Gaul. CREDIT: Lionsgate

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For the first half, Songbirds And Snakes is familiar, fun territory. In their 10th year the games lack the popularity they achieve in the decades to come, with the scheming Dean Highbottom (played with delightful malice by Game Of Thrones star Peter Dinklage) keen to stop them and any chance of Snow’s success. The relationship between Snow and Baird is carefully crafted – with a will-they, won’t-they romance brewing. That said, the most interesting screen relationship is that of Snow and Head Gamemaker Volumnia Gaul. As performed by the typically excellent Viola Davis, Gaul is a sinister eccentric and a genuinely unsettling oddball even by the dystopian standards of The Hunger Games.

But what makes this fifth film the best of the franchise is its tense, paranoid latter half. Snow finds himself exiled to District 12 as a peacekeeper and his sympathies for the rebels seem to sway back and forth. Though we know what he eventually becomes, it’s a treat to watch him working out which master he should serve as he spies, lies and betrays. It’s rare to see moral ambivalence depicted in such non-judgemental fashion, especially in a blockbuster movie. As Snow stalks the industrial gloom, we’re almost rooting for him. With that psychological surprise and Jason Schwartzman’s hilarious, bizarre turn as Lucky Flickerman, the host of the games and likely ancestor of Caesar Flickerman, played by Stanley Tucci in the previous films, it looks like no Katniss is no problem for Songbirds And Snakes. A fine blockbuster adventure for autumn.

Details

  • Director: Francis Lawrence
  • Starring: Rachel Zegler, Tom Blyth, Viola Davis
  • Release date: November 17 (in cinemas)
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