Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Neal Burger
Stars: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Jai Courtney, Miles Teller, Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn, Kate Winslet, Zoe Kravitz, Ray Stevenson, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Mekhi Phifer, Ben Lloyd-Hughes, Christian Madsen, Amy Newbold.
Yet another young adult novel set in a dystopian future and featuring a feisty heroine challenging
the status quo and rebelling against the strict structure and authoritarian government makes its
way to the screen. Comparisons to The Hunger Games will be inevitable, and while Divergent
doesn’t quite have the same compelling narrative and power it will certainly appeal to its target
Divergent borrows elements and themes from many of the other YA novels that have found their
way to the screen it is a coming of age story set in a dystopian world, and the story deals with
outsiders finding their place in a strange new world, and explores rich themes of identity,
conformity, independence and individuality, heroism and rebellion, power struggles, power and
ambition, and the concept of female empowerment.
Divergent is based on the popular, bestselling trilogy written by Veronica Roth, which has sold
over eleven million copies. The screenplay from Evan Daugherty (Snow White And The
Huntsman, etc) and Vanessa Taylor (a tv writer whose work includes episodes of Alias, Jack And
Bobby, and the romcom Hope Springs, etc) remains reasonably faithful to the source material.
The film is set in a future, 100 years after a war devastated the planet. The action takes place in
Chicago, which has been ravaged by the apocalyptic events of the past, and the crumbling city
now lies enclosed by an electrified fence. To try and maintain order in this brave new world, the
authorities have devised a scheme whereby society has been divided into five factions, each with
its own identity and purpose. But as we well know, once you start introducing factions or cliques
into a society trouble is not far away.
The five factions here are Erudite, the clever people, the thinkers; Amity are kind and peaceful
and help people, they grow crops and help provide for the other factions; Candour are honest and
they dress in black and white (a deliberately ironic colour scheme?); Abnegation are selfless and
do not value power or ambition or wealth; and Dauntless are the fearless protectors of the city,
known for their bravery and they act as an unofficial police force.
In this world when children turn 16 they undergo aptitude tests to determine which faction they
belong to. Although they have free will to choose any faction, 95% of them tend to choose their
parent’s faction, ensuring that the system and the status quo works. And once they have chosen
their faction they undergo a rigourous initiation to ensure that they belong. If they fail the initiation
period they are driven out of the faction and forced to live on the streets, homeless and unwanted.
Their families are unable to take them back.
The selection ceremony whereby the children announce which faction they are joining seems like
something out of Harry Potter, albeit without the sorting hat nonsense.
But there are occasionally divergents, children with special abilities and who are capable of
independent thought and who has qualities of several different factions. They are considered a
threat to the established order and are hunted down and killed. Usually they are forced to remain
quiet about their abilities and try their best to fit in.
One such divergent is Beatrice Prior (played by Shailene Woodley, best known for playing
George Clooney’s daughter in The Descendants). Her parents belong to the selfless Abnegation
faction. When Tris, as she prefers to be called, undergoes testing, the results are “inconclusive”,
according to a sympathetic tester (Maggie Q). Tris joins the Dauntless faction,and thus undergoes
a fairly gruelling 10 week initiation program. Eric (Jai Courtney, from the A Good Day To Die Hard,
etc) is the ruthless leader of the faction, and he seems to take an instant dislike to Tris, pushing
her hard in the hopes that she will fail. But she finds support from his offsider, Marcus (Theo
James, from Underworld: Awakening, etc), known as Four.
Tris’ voice over narration takes us into this unfamiliar world and the opening minutes are quite
heavy with exposition as she tries to explain the internal logic of this world. It doesn’t quite make a
lot of sense, and older audiences may well find themselves left with more questions than answers.
But there is something sinister happening behind the scenes, as Jeanine Matthews (Kate
Winslet), the powerful leader of Erudite, is planning to mount a coup to wipe out Abnegation and
take over the government. Eventually Tris leads the rebellion to thwart Matthews’ plan, which sets
her in direct opposition to Eric and Dauntless. Tris is a heroine clearly drawn in the same mould
as Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games series. Rising young star Woodley delivers a solid
performance here in a fairly physical and demanding role, and although she lacks the charisma of
Jennifer Lawrence this film series should catapult her to a similar level of stardom.
There is good chemistry between Woodley and James, and the love story between the pair is less
saccharine and twee than that between the central characters in the increasingly bland Twilight
series. James is good as the mysterious Four, and his backstory makes him a more sympathetic
character. James’ character is heavily tattooed and it apparently took three hours of makeup to
apply them. Winslet is icy as the villain of the piece, and makes the most of a small but important
role. Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn (replacing original choice Aaron Eckhart) play Tris’ parents,
and are given little of substance to do until the exciting climax. Divergent also reunites Woodley
with Miles Teller, hercostar from the romantic drama The Spectacular Now, who plays Peter, a
member of Erudite but who is a nasty piece of work.
There is a hunky supporting cast who are given little of note to do, although they acquit
themselves well enough with the physical demands of the material.
Technical credits throughout are excellent. Carlo Poggiol’s costumes perfectly reflect this post
apocalyptic dystopian society that values conformity rather than individuality. Alwin Kuchler’s
cinematography captures the crumbled grey and bleak vision of this ruined Chicago. Hans
Zimmer’s score is evocative and unsettling at times, but it moves the action along.
Director Neal Burger (Limitless, The Illusionist, etc) handles the action sequences quite effectively
here, although the film takes a good deal of time in establishing this unique world at the expense
of the tension and drama. The editing from Richard FrancisBurke and Nancy Richardson is sharp
and keeps most of the action scenes uncluttered. But while he has handled the material well,
Burger won’t be returning for the inevitable sequel.
And like the Harry Potter, Twilight and Hunger Games series, the producers have announced that
Allegiant, the final film in the series, will be released in two instalments. While Divergent lacks the
muscle and darker tone of The Hunger Games, it is hoped that the second film in the series will
be a bit stronger and more compelling.
Divergent is a high concept fantasy, but ultimately it seems a bit cliched and generic, and many of
its elements will seem familiar. For all its flaws though, Divergent is another example of the
popular young adult fiction that is turning a generation of adolescent girls (and boys) into readers,
and that can’t be a bad thing!