Star Rating:

The Hunger Games: The Ballad Of Songbirds & Snakes

Director: Francis Lawrence

Actors: Rachel Zegler, Tom Blyth, Viola Davis, Peter Dinklage

Release Date: Friday 17th November 2023

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Drama

Running time: 157 minutes

Desperate to see his family restored its former glory, Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) weaves a dangerous path to win the favour of Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis) and outwit his teacher at the Academy, Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage). Students of the Academy are chosen to mentor the captured prisoners for the 10th Hunger Games, with Coriolanus paired with Lucy-Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), a nomadic singer from District 12, who begins to win the favour and capture the imagination of the Capitol with her singing and her cunning...

There's some kind of grand irony in a long-ass title like 'The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes' being an equally long-ass movie, when it could be summarised into Big Villain Origin Story. That's it. For well over two and a half hours, the movie zeroes in on Tom Blyth's character - previously played by Donald Sutherland - as he becomes the conniving bastard audiences loved to hate in the original movies. This time around, he's all golden locks and wide-eyed enthusiasm as he spars with his classmates and trades barbs with Viola Davis and Peter Dinklage - both of whom are surprisingly engaged in their performances. For a good chunk of the movie, however, it's hanging around and waiting for the Hunger Games themselves to start and afterwards, waiting for the denouement to come for Coriolanus Snow.

As a villain origin story, screenwriters Michael Arndt and Michael Lesslie are more than equal to the task of making a convincing reason for Coriolanus Snow to become the relentless, manipulative tyrant. It's not so much that he was turned evil or even wronged into existence, but rather that the world around him reminds him time and again that he will succeed when he's at his most ruthless. Tom Blyth is able to capture the urgency of his character's ambition, but also makes the faltering of it believable. Rachel Zegler, meanwhile, feels far less suitable in the role of Lucy Gray Baird.

Although we're supposed to see her as this self-possessed, endlessly confident balladeer, Zegler's performance has more Theatre Kid energy than anything else. Compared to her 'West Side Story' castmate Josh Andrés Rivera, who plays Snow's endlessly misguided friend Sejanus, Zegler feels at odds with the rest of the cast. As mentioned, the grown-ups - Viola Davis, Peter Dinklage, Jason Schwartzman and the ever-reliable Burn Gorman - all fill out their roles with real enthusiasm. There's a touch of histrionics with Viola Davis' performance, veering decidedly into scenery chewing in more than a few scenes. Jason Schwartzman, equally, is all gameshow charm and playing the role for chuckles against teenagers massacring one another for sport.

As a director, Francis Lawrence is a true stylist and there's a considered attention to detail in both production design and cinematography. The costumes as well are noticeable, while the art deco architecture that surrounds them constantly echoes the vainglorious oppression of fascism and adds to the convincing nature of the world the movie is set in. Yet despite this, as well as a game cast, and a story that has more heft and substance to it than most YA prequels, the movie crumbles under its own weight. The pacing is all off, and you feel the story grind to a halt far too often. You can't help but get the sense that the whole thing might have been better served with a sharper cut, or failing that, turned into a television miniseries. Far too drawn out for it to be effective, 'The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes' is ultimately as laborious as the name suggests.