This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 13th April 2014
For all those who reject the notion of personality testing because they feel they’re too individual to be “put in a box” (by the way, some tests even have a box specially for people like you), the essence of Divergent may cause discomfort.
Set in a futuristic, initially utopian Chicago, survivors of the apocalypse live mostly peaceably, divided into five factions called “Virtues”, each tasked with looking after a different aspect of society’s needs. Sixteen year old Beatrice (played by The Descendants’ Shailene Woodley) has been brought up with her parents and brother Caleb under Abnegation: the selfless types who feed the poor factionless and reject vanity and excess. While Beatrice gazes longingly at the more exciting exploits of the Dauntless, Caleb has designs on turning his brain to good use with those defined as Erudite. Although one’s rightful place in a faction is determined through a coming-of-age personality test, the young are also given free choice – but once you choose a faction, you’re committed for life.
Based on the debut novel by Veronica Roth, the tale has inevitably been compared to The Hunger Games, and there is already a trilogy of books being made into films as we speak. The comparison is just but Divergent is sufficiently fresh to be wholly satisfying on its own merits – this is young adult fiction well-told, with just the right balance of physical drama, personal peril and philosophical wrangling, prompting even adult viewers to ponder which of the Virtues they might resign themselves to.
Under the safe direction of Neil Burger (Limitless, The Illusionist), key to the film’s hook is the relationship between Beatrice (who rapidly sheds her identity and half her name to become Tris) and the terribly handsome and surly Four (Theo James, looking like a modern-day Michelangelo’s David, and not remotely annoying for it). Despite the heavily signposted coupling, Woodley and James work very well together, Woodley impressively gutsy and giving Katniss Everdeen a run for her money as she practises hand-to-hand combat and proves herself dauntless indeed when suddenly their utopian world turns altogether more dystopian.
With a matronly Kate Winslet outdoing Jodie Foster’s attempt at icy blonde from Elysium, and a great cast of young actors including Zoe Kravitz and Miles Teller, Divergent is a well-written and incredibly enjoyable jaunt into a future where the motto “Faction Before Blood” ought to make the viewer’s run cold.