Directed By: Neil Burger
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Miles Teller, Jai Courtney, Ansel Elgort, Zoe Kravitz, Ray Stevenson, Maggie Q, Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn, Mekhi Phifer, Christian Madsen, Ben Lloyd-Hughes
After a slew of young adult book-to-film adaptations essentially crashed and burned, it’s finally time for “The Hunger Games” to make some room because the quality of “Divergent” justifies all of the hype and gives the film a solid shot at becoming a successful franchise-starter, too.
The story takes place in a future Chicago in which society is divided up into five factions based on core values. The Abnegation place precedence on selflessness, Erudite believe intelligence is of the utmost importance, Dauntless pride themselves on bravery, Amity on peace and Candor on honesty. Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) is a member of Abnegation, but that could change come the Choosing Ceremony. Even though she was born into that faction, it’ll ultimately be her decision what kind of life she wants to lead. Does she stick with her family or follow her gut? The Aptitude Test is supposed to help with that, but in Beatrice’s case, it only makes the choice more difficult because she didn’t test positive for just one faction, but rather three. Beatrice is Divergent.
Even if you’ve only seen a single trailer for “Divergent,” it’s quite clear that it’s a tricky scenario to explain. Some story components get lost in the mix, but the screenwriters do manage to convey the basics in a dynamic fashion. The film opens with Beatrice running through the preliminary details via voiceover, but soon enough, they’re paired with the appropriate visuals, and, much quicker than one might expect, you’re consumed by this world and ready to start exploring the details of the situation, and then Woodley takes it from there.
She delivers high quality work in “The Descendants” and “The Spectacular Now,” and by adding “Divergent” to that mix, she really sells herself as an actress capable of anything, which is particularly vital for this role because of the character’s tremendous transition. During the Choosing Ceremony, Beatrice goes for Dauntless and that means not only is she expected to mature and become a young adult, just as any 16-year-old might, but she’s got to completely change her lifestyle. Whereas Abnegation members can’t look in mirrors, only eat plain food and gingerly shuffle around in their grey robes, the Dauntless are brash and bold, making themselves stand out with tattoos, striking personas and extreme combat skills. Even though Beatrice/Tris isn’t a perfect fit for either faction, Woodley sells an interest in being part of both while also slowly formulating her character’s priorities, resulting in a thorough and believable arc.
“Divergent” is Woodley’s movie. There are other standout performances, but Woodley is the driving force and Burger knows it. Her work is stellar as is, but then Burger kicks it up a notch through thoughtful and effective coverage. There are quite a few scenes that hit home not because someone emotes on the spot or nails a pivotal line of dialogue, but rather because Burger holds on Woodley’s reaction just long enough to both convey what she’s thinking and also to ensure that the beat hits home on a deeper level. “Divergent” also rocks a number of tearjerkers, the large majority of which get their power from Woodley. There’s one scene in particular where Woodley’s raw emotion is so overwhelming, it’ll have you tearing up over the loss of a character that gets a minimal amount of screen time.
Even though Woodley is the clear standout, there are quite a few supporting performances that bring out additional layers to her character and are also vital to the comprehensive depiction of this world. Theo James can’t conjure a connection to the audience quite like Woodley, but he’s not supposed to. Four is Tris’ Dauntless initiation instructor. He’s all-business and somewhat cold, but, ever so slowly, Tris starts to eat away at him until he can’t help but to make his feelings for her known. There are your typical tacky teen romance moments, but for the most part, their affection for one another is truly touching because of the palpable affect James lets Tris have on Four.
Of Tris’ Dauntless initiation buddies, Zoe Kravitz is the most memorable as the Candor transfer, Christina. She’s got a unique sass that makes her a breath of fresh air in just about every scene she’s in, but when it’s time for Christina to get serious and power through some of Dauntless’ most trying initiation tests, you truly feel for her. Christian Madsen’s Al and Ben Lloyd-Hughes’ Will are both always around, but neither make much of an impression due to a lack of meaty material. Miles Teller’s role, on the other hand, was clearly ramped up to better suit his skillset, and to great effect, too. Peter is the initiation class bully who especially enjoys picking on Tris. While Teller’s version of the character does retain a degree of the malice that Peter has in the book, here, his taunts come with more humor than malevolence, making him deplorable, but still relatively enjoyable to watch.
Of the adults, Ray Stevenson definitely gets the short end of the stick, but Maggie Q does manage to do a lot with the little she’s given. Tori is only featured in a few scenes, but in each and every one, she’s a source of vital information and adds a significant amount of tension. Tony Goldwyn is a bit of a throwaway as Andrew Prior, Tris’ father, but Ashley Judd does manage to make a mark as her mother, Natalie. She is a dull, wet blanket to start, but that makes her actions later on in the film even more explosive.
And then, of course we’ve got Kate Winslet’s Jeanine Matthews. Jeanine is the leader of Erudite and the cause of most of the problems in “Divergent.” Because Abnegation is solely dedicated to helping others, they were put in charge of government. However, being the smart ones of the bunch, Jeanine thinks it’s much more fitting for Erudite to take charge and she’s determined to make that happen no matter what. Her dialogue and actions are a bit one-note, but Winslet takes that material and turns Jeanine into a magnetizing enigma of sorts. Thanks to the heavy-handed music, you’re well aware that she’s the villain the moment she steps on screen, but there’s also something about her fervor for the faction system and confidence in it that makes you want to believe in it, too.
On the technical front, “Divergent” is a triumph in every respect. The production value is through the roof with wildly detailed sets, set extensions that are flawless, extremely appealing costume design, an incredible array of stunts and then prime shot selection and composition to capture it all. Simply put, “Divergent” is fun to look at. The tiniest prop has the slightest pop of color to catch your eye and a single Dauntless punch represents a desperation to win and also reflects a practical fighting style. Stunt coordinator Garrett Warren doesn’t just make the action look good; he practically turns it into a character in and of it self by making it feel as though there is a purpose behind every jab, knife-throw and death-defying jump. Admittedly, some of these sequences can be off-putting, especially when you’re watching poor Woodley get knocked around by an opponent twice her size, but Warren choreographed those scenes in the most reasonable way imaginable and then Burger covers them using an appropriately visceral shot selection.
We definitely have something here. “Divergent” does fall short of matching “The Hunger Games,” but it comes closer than any other recent young adult book-to-film adaptation. Everyone involved clearly took the work very seriously, taking a thoughtful approach to even the tiniest nuance and those details come together exceptionally well, creating a world that you believe, understand and become invested in.