Hanna Directed by Joe Wright
Overheard shop talk at a recent screening suggests many critics are looking forward to comparing Hanna to last month's kick-ass teen-girl orgy Sucker Punch, but another useful comparison may be the surrogate-daddy-daughter vengeance mission True Grit, or, more aptly given the ultraviolence and director Joe Wright's nightclub aesthetic, Luc Besson's crypto-remake The Professional. That is, a coming-of-age story filtered through the fight-or-flight prerogatives of the action film; what distinguishes Hanna, if that's the right word, is the ostentation with which its journey-to-adulthood subtext becomes, uh, text.
In a snow-frosted hut deep in the north woods live Hanna and her papa, Erik (Saoirse Ronan and Eric Bana), who wear fur and skins and matted hair. With his beard and gentle Eastern Bloc accent, Bana feels a bit Liam-Neesony as he leads his adolescent charge through a first reel that's essentially one long training montage, all hunting, abruptly initiated hand-to-hand combat, target practice (where does the ammo come from? Never mind), and rote memorization of outdated encyclopedias. From Hanna's mastery of several languages and her budding wanderlust—"What does music feel like?"—we ascertain that this has been going on for quite some time, and is about to change; and indeed, when left in the house alone, she activates the transmitter that will advertise their location to the shadowy US intelligence handler (Cate Blanchett) from whom they've lived in hiding ever since the death of Hanna's mother, and the long-gestating plan for their (re-)entry into the world is in motion.
At first extracted from her childhood home by a special-ops team, this baby Bourne escapes (racking up a few kills) from a secret government bunker via a rabbit hole in the desert. As Hanna—at first in orange jumpsuit, like a kid who journeys to a vast dreamworld in his pajamas—eludes her pursuers and researches her family history en route to a Berlin rendez-vous point with Dad, she falls in with a British family RV'ing from Morocco to Spain, whom she watches, in awe, dance to David Bowie. She bears their pettily normal attitudes about child-rearing, and with their daughter (Tamara Drewe scene-stealer Jessica Barden, great again as the personification of teen-girl appetites) forges her first-ever friendship; they meet boys and see flamenco. With Hanna's superhuman strength and blank slate, she's like a fantasy movie's outwardly normal interloper.
Ronan is wide-eyed and ghostly pale, an ideal mix of the blank and fervent, but the real savant here is Wright, with his endlessly dynamic framings and bone-crunchingly emphatic editing. The score, a seat-rattling throb of tension and release, is by the Chemical Brothers; Hanna's flight from a government bunker feels like a rave gone bad, all shock cuts and subterranean lighting, while a fight scene in the Berlin subway is captured in a single attention-getting Steadicam take (though the stuttering slo-mo stuntwork seems doctored).
Even more baroque than the bone-crunching, though, is the showy slathering of metaphor. From the way Wright and his screenwriters discuss the movie's fairytale motifs in the press notes and in a recent Sunday Arts curtain-raiser, you'd think they were worried people might not register the way Hanna's childhood home resembles the Hansel and Gretel-themed attraction where she hides, under the bed, from the bad lady. Or the postcard saying, "The witch is dead." Or the second-tier baddie who says, "To Grandmother's house we go." (Blanchett also gets a nice "don't you walk away from me, young lady," lest we miss the underlying custody-battle structure.)
The point, obviously, is that fairy stories are the narratives through which young women gain their wisdom and articulate their wants and needs for the first time; one climactic scene is set at an abandoned playground (a rhyming loss-of-innocence setting previously used in the opening scene of Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Season 2 proof-of-concept episode "Lie to Me"). Like action movies—Wright rushes through his McGuffin with some quick googling (no wonder dad preferred the encyclopedias) and even quicker editing, since Hanna's journey is, like any guidance counselor would say, more important than its destination. As, for that matter, is Hanna's—the film is best appreciated as the shallow, stylized storytelling and filmmaking, best exemplified by self-aware Blanchett's hammily symmetrical performance, with Southern and German accents ringing equally, enjoyably false.
Opens April 8