Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet
Director: Neil Burger
The DVD of this adaptation of Veronica Roth’s best selling novel comes with a featurette in which everyone has a go at explaining the premise. Not that it’s particularly hard to understand; it’s more like they’re trying to convince themselves that it makes sense. In a post-apocalyptic future, Chicago has been reduced to a small, moss-encrusted enclave in which, in order to promote harmony, society is divided into five Factions – there’s Erudite, the smart ones, Dauntless, the militia who guard the fence around the city, and three others: Amity, Candour and Abnegation. At a certain age everyone is free to choose which faction they will join, but the choice, once made, is for life. Basically it’s a bit like the House system in Harry Potter, only without the talking hat. There’s a test to help you choose, but when Maggie Q’s tech administers it to Beatrice ‘Tris’ Prior (Shailene Woodley), the result is inconclusive. This is because she is a Divergent, someone who bucks the system by not fitting snugly into any one category.
By birth, Tris is a member of Abnegation, the most hopelessly unhip of all the factions, who schlep around in baggy grey clothes, tending the needy. She, though, has her heart set on Dauntless. They’re definitely the cool kids; they get to ride on what’s left of the L and wear black, tight-fitting uniforms and they kick ass. Alas, she discovers that being a new recruit at Dauntless is quite, erm… daunting. The training is hard, the penalties for failure are severe, and anything less than suicidal heroism is frowned upon (given that the population of Chicago has been reduced to about 50,000, you’d think everyone would have a greater respect for the sanctity of human life, but nope). The silver lining, however, is that she immediately catches the eye of chisel-jawed instructor Four (and as played by Theo James, he’s more like a Ten).
As recipes for social harmony go, tearing people away from their friends and family and permanently pigeonholing them doesn’t exactly sound like a winner, and so it proves. But then the plot of Divergent is more like a tale told in a self-actualization seminar than proper science fiction. It’s a laboured means of making blindingly obvious points about the dangers of social segregation and the need for people to realize themselves as individuals rather than being squashed into rigid categories – as if anyone thought any different. The script hammers this home dutifully – “If you don’t fit into a category, they can’t control you,” “People have always been so threatened by divergence”, “I don’t want to be just one thing. I can’t be”. At the same time, it can’t resist using the factions as a lazy and convenient way of getting a handle on the supporting characters – so because she was born into Candour, a faction known for its honesty, Tris’ pal Christina (Zoe Kravitz) is a spunky little wisearse who always says what she thinks. (Or maybe it’s just that some people are less individual than others.)
Objections multiply in your head while you’re watching Divergent. (Wouldn’t grey old Abnegation have some serious recruitment problems? And with Abnegation running the government and Dauntless in charge of security, what does that leave Erudite to be erudite about?) And yet you don’t really hold them against the movie, because the filmmakers do such a good job of keeping the story grounded. The production design by Andy Nicholson (Gravity) is clean and understated, not overdone to the point of absurdity, with Shaker-style austerity for Abnegation and Scandinavian minimalism and natty suits for Erudite (although those people who till the fields look a bit too much like druids at a summer solstice festival). There’s a smart use of location shooting in Chicago which must make the film a treat for anyone who knows the city well, and Alwin H. Kuchler’s cinematography bathes everything in a pearly glow that seems to embody this society’s slightly numb, emotionally unplugged utopian mindset. Throughout, Neil Burger’s touch is supple and involving without being hyperbolic; his sensuous directorial style seems to muffle the story’s simplistic message and divert your attention to the human level and the lived moment. There’s a nice sequence where Tris goes zip-lining through the city at night which reminds you that it’s fun to be young even when the world is crumbling.
Divergent follows the standard practise of YA lit-based films of being on the long side at at 2¼ hours, but it doesn’t feel unwieldy, because Burger uses this length to soften the contours of the story, so that even the late switch-up into a hastily thrown-together coup situation doesn’t come as too much of a jolt. Theo James takes his cue from Burger’s leaning toward understatement, keeping his supporting turn simple and direct, and leading lady Shailene Woodley brings something cherishably bright yet girl next door-like to the table. Hers is a measured performance, unravelling slowly under the strain of living in fear and injecting real feeling into this colour-coded world; and even if you never exactly buy her as an out-and-out action heroine, you accept that she’s the kind of person who would work hard to maximise her butt-kicking skills. The source material might not bear a whole lot of scrutiny, but as a reflection of teen anxiety about choosing a path in life, the film works well enough, and the more it closes in on the relationship between Tris and Four, the more compelling it gets.
As well as some deleted scenes and the aforementioned 14-minute featurette, the DVD comes with two sets of audio commentaries. The one by the director is well worth checking out; Burger is extremely articulate and convincing as he explains the various subtle visual motifs he wove into the movie.