Movie Review: ‘Divergent’ a dystopian success

The “Hunger Games” movies echoed the success of Suzanne Collins’ books with one wise move: Top-notch actors in every role.

“Divergent” manages this same feat in precisely the same way.

Based on Book One in Veronica Roth’s sci-fi trilogy, “Divergent” is a beautifully acted thrill-ride – thoughtful, romantic, exciting, gorgeous and bracingly authentic.

The tale is set in a futuristic Chicago, partly decimated by a recent war; in an ill-advised effort to stabilize peace, society has been divided into five factions, each living out a primary trait: Dauntless (bravery), Abnegation (sacrifice), Amity (love), Candor (honesty) and Erudite (intelligence).

Like all teens in this society, protagonist Tris Prior must take a test to reveal her personal bent and then – heeding or ignoring its advice – choose a faction for life.

Even though she’s “divergent” – that is, she can’t be placed in a single category – Tris chooses Dauntless, struggles through its rigorous initiation, falls for a tough but committed trainer and conceals her divergence because powerful people consider it a threat.

So there’s plenty of plot here – too much, at times, as the film works to streamline Roth’s opus and in the process leaves a few loose ends.

But the gripping characters and dazzling visuals make this a quibble.

As Tris, Shailene Woodley is spectacular – an instant superstar. Like Jennifer Lawrence, to whose acting chops “Hunger Games” owes much of its success, Woodley can bring a world of implication to a single gesture or expression; her wide-ranging performance – tough, tender, scared, cunning – never strikes a false note.

And she has plenty of chemistry with her love interest, nicely played by Theo James. Best known as the mysterious Prince Pamuk from “Downton Abbey,” the darkly handsome James is one of those actors the camera loves to look at.

Other strong work is provided by Tony Goldwyn as Tris’s father, Ansel Elgort as her brother and Jai Courtney as a thuggish trainer – plus Kate Winslet and Miles Teller, both playing baddies for a change.

Frankly, I didn’t think the likable Teller could pull it off; he’s another very impressive young actor.

(Incidentally, Elgort and Woodley star together in this summer’s much-anticipated “Fault in Our Stars.”)

The action scenes are swift and sizzling, beautifully choreographed and never overdone (a rarity these days); and the visual scheme is letter perfect. Sprawling views of half-wrecked cityscapes look fantastically real – I honestly could not spot the CGI in these shots.

Like the book, “Divergent’s” storyline has a few surprises, and it handles them nicely. In fact, I liked the movie much better than the novel. There’s less adolescent hair-pulling by narrator Tris (“Does he like me? Do I like him?”); all of this is achieved by implication, which works a lot better.

With “Catching Fire” still basking in its global success, “The Giver” due in August and two more “Divergent” books to be filmed, dystopia is looking pretty good these days.

3 1/2 stars out of 4.

Rated PG-13 for intense violence and action, thematic elements and some sensuality.