“What did your mother die of?”
Out in the bleak and snow-swept forests of northern Finland, renegade CIA operative Erik (Eric Bana) has been schooling his daughter in the ways of the world. The world, that is, that he knows. Therefore, sixteen-year old Hanna (Saorise Ronan) is less sweet and considerably more deadly than her self-conscious counterparts enjoying a life of high schools and boyfriends. Spoon-fed survival techniques for the wilderness and the urban environment, taught how to snap necks and take down assailants more than double her size, Hanna has more on her mind than the latest lip-gloss or boy-band. She can outrun an Olympic sprinter and probably out-pace Forrest Gump chasing that endless horizon. Only fleet-footed Tom Cruise in MI:3 would have a chance of keeping up with her. When not out hunting food for the table with her Grizzly Adams-like dad, she is perfecting her archery and ballistic talents and doing press-ups. Her down-time is spent learning foreign languages and absorbing a million-and-one seemingly trivial facts about the outside world from Bana’s regular encyclopaedia-spouting sermons. But what’s all this dark preparation in aid of? Why is Erik so frightened? Just who does he think will be coming for them?
When the time is right, however, he will be forced to unleash his formidable protégé into a whirlwind of covert operatives, dirty tricks and nasty Neo-Nazi hit-men, all under the unwavering and sinister command of Cate Blanchett’s grim Agency watchdog, Marissa Wiegler. Marissa knows more about Erik and Hanna than she is letting on, and somewhere in the past is a deadly secret that she will kill to keep under wraps. The action hot-foots-it from frozen Finland to scorched Morocco and on to the dour Cold War playground of Berlin, and hauls-in a raft of unusual and eccentric characters to dilute the right-wing kill or capture policy that governs the whole narrative.
But Joe Wright’s Hanna is not just a Post-Bourne Leon, and nor is the titular character a swift reimagining of Chloe Moretz’s infamous Hit-Girl from Kick-Ass, although there are some unmistakable similarities. Having made his name with impressive adaptations of Pride And Prejudice and Atonement, films that were all about manners, etiquette and coy class sensibilities in bygone times, and then the uplifting modern saga of The Soloist, he may have completely switched tactics and wrong-footed his devoted audience with this hyper-visceral chase odyssey, but he hasn’t totally neglected the essential heart of the story in favour of crunching metal and mucho bone-breakage. At the core of Hanna is the semi-surreal ordeal of a stolen childhood and the need to understand why such a thing happened. It is about trust and about lies. About a fatal devotion and about a gut-wrenching sacrifice. But it is another, and altogether more beguiling conceit that makes Hanna such a refreshing film in a genre that is, frankly, teeming with super-skilled assassins and emotionless pseudo-military mercenaries. You see, Hanna is also a fairytale. Looking every inch the vulnerable waif who has strayed too far from Granny’s cottage, Ronan’s wide-eyed innocent is all too clearly prey for the Big Bad Wolf. Although this little pig is apt to crack the wolf’s spine in two and kick out all of his teeth before he even hits the ground. Innocent, yes. But hardly defenceless.
The truth may be painful … but getting to it is so damn entertaining.
Anchoring the ceaseless threat, Blanchett is like the wicked stepmother, or the evil queen, out to eradicate the purity of Hanna once and for all and restore order to her realm. With an unusual twangy Texan accent - that seems to have been adopted merely to give her character a trait that would separate her from a hundred other such government monsters - and a coldly efficient dental regime she is an ice-maiden with a distinctly hidden agenda. At one crucial stage we even see Marissa framed in the cavernous mouth of giant theme-park wolf … beckoning to the beleaguered Hanna with an automatic that may as well be a poisoned apple. It is a great image, although far from subtle. And Blanchett is highly potent at making Marissa a formidable opponent in a world festooned with gadgets, guns and gung-ho stereotypes. With glaring eyes that shine like steel and an aura of granite she is one tough, though still eminently sexy bitch. Her lackeys may rush to do her bidding – most of them coming unstuck at the furious hands of either Dad or Daughter – but Marissa finds she requires the more unorthodox methods employed by whistling Eurotrash pimp, Tom Hollander, and his little team of loutish jackboot-wannabes. This is a blindingly smart move. Hollander smarms it up with rogue camp, whilst the skinheads come across like the Three Stooges, the image viciously inverted until we see exactly what they are all capable of. A tortured Samaritan hangs upside down like a grisly Christmas bauble in the wake of one of their Q & A sessions.
The influence of Bourne cannot be ignored, however. A central character lost in the barren and unfriendly wilds of violence and deception, unleashed upon a trajectory that holds a million terrible secrets about their true identity. The pounding, insistent score from The Chemical Brothers is an evolution from the techno soundscape that John Powell created for the ever-adrenalised Blackbriar assassin. If Alwin H. Kuchler’s camerawork is less in-yer-face and Wright-regular Paul Tothill’s editing much more scenic and elaborate than anything Paul Greengrass came up with, or even Marc Forster when he tried to snap-cut the other brutal JB into the same subliminal style in Quantum Of Solace, the foot is still very definitely hammered on the gas pedal and the senses sent spinning in a chaotic series of blistering hit and run salvos. We are in that familiarly shadow-drenched moral morass of corrupt government agencies and section chiefs with altogether too much power. Culturally speaking, we are extremely savvie to this sort of set-up. In fact, we have high security clearance to all the usual procedures and protocol that the formula so loves. We know the MI6 and the CIA of the movies inside-out and we’re up to scratch with Ethan Hunt and the Impossible Missions Force, so, thankfully, Wright doesn’t waste too much time with any of the usual deception doggerel and snazzy surveillance shtick that is meat ‘n’ potatoes to this sort of cloak-and-dagger game. Hanna is keen to fathom out just who or even, more acutely, what she is, but she is not going to conduct phone-taps, masquerade behind latex masks or lead operatives on a wild goose chase just so that she can gain access to the sensitive facts that lie at the heart of her existence. There is some synapse-quick computer-hacking, but Wright never loses sight of the fact that this is, when all said and done, just a young girl who wants to know where she came from and who her family is.
The middle section – in which the bedraggled blonde stray goes cross-country with an English family and learns a little potpourri of humanity - is cute and clever and, above all, necessary, but it is almost guaranteed that the hard-nosed amongst us will simply be hankering after the next hand-to-hand tussle. Jason Flemying plays against type as the harassed and downtrodden dad – the exact opposite of the father Hanna longs to see again – and Olivia Williams goes for something of a fading hippy, with her rat-race shunning, world-loving turn as mum. Neither convinces I’m afraid. But it is Jessica Barden’s on-the-ball, independent wild-child daughter, Sophie, who makes the most impactful and lasting impression on Hanna. Finding some semblance of what it means to be a modern sixteen year old girl, which roughly entails having to be stopped just in the nick of time before instinctively decimating a would-be paramour, our heroine soaks up the ideology of it all like a sponge. But even Hanna knows that this is a lifestyle that can never be hers. Sensibly, Wright doesn’t overdo any of this. Tiny snippets of tragic truths are blurted out yet, rather impressively, they are done for more their comedic appeal than any emotional shock-value. It would be too easy to wallow in sentimentality during this phase, and even though there would be understandable grounds for doing so, such a tacit-move would ruin the fable-like resonance. To wit, Hanna's conversation-killing reply to how her mother died. Or her delivery of “breakfast” to the would-be happy campers during a pit-stop.
The set-pieces are dazzling. Hanna’s breathtaking breakout from a CIA outpost so heavily fortified that it could qualify as a nuclear bunker (a brilliant design inspired by the early Bond and Dr. Strangelove sets of Ken Adam) is an utter delight. Up until this early juncture we’ve only had tantalising glimpses of what the girl is capable of, but Wright knows that we know she can get out of there. So he expertly cranks up the tension as Hanna calculates her timings, sizes up the opposition and seizes her moment – and all from behind the façade of a little girl lost. The build-up is hair-trigger, the pay-off explosive. From then on, we are in for a heart-stopping yet indulgently cool five minutes or so of athletic escape and evasion, the lithe and limber Ronan outrunning, outfighting and outsmarting her pursuers with supreme ease and a breakneck momentum.
A majestic one-take shot tracks Erik, after he has already undertaken an epic Beowulf-like swim across the sea, as he enters a subway and is surrounded by enemy agents, and then continues in a fluid 360-degree spin around him as he coolly takes them all down in a grand melee. There is a tense and energetic chase through a dockyard that sees Hanna leaping from container to container as the gaggle of those comical-cum-scary skinhead goons pursue her. Effortlessly beating Christopher Nolan at his own game, Wright then shows us how she drops down and deals with her unwanted harriers in smooth, well shot and choreographed vignettes of violence – the sort of thing that we should have been permitted so see in Batman Begins. An emotionally cathartic outburst takes place in a cramped Berlin apartment, and Wright savours a stylish showdown in a fantastical park filled with dinosaurs. No action fan could claim that they weren’t getting their money’s worth.
But all of this would just be kinetic eye-candy were it not for the film’s outstanding lead. Undeniably, Ronan is the star of the show. Having revealed some range already in Atonement and Peter Jackson's misfiring take on The Lovely Bones, she brings an essential humanity to the role of the mini-commando, something that most performers of such death-dealing solo warriors neglect. Emotionally fragile, yet immune to the conventional ravages of disillusionment, Hanna is a like the scalpel wielded by a maniac – blankly sympathetic and not in the least bit guilty of her actions. Just a tool created to do supreme damage in an ultra deadly business. Ronan is decidedly plausible at dealing out the pain too, with crackerjack blocks, locks, strikes and holds that come out of nowhere, and just keep on coming. And she handles the weirdness of it all with a startling conviction that seems to combine a hefty dollop of Blade Runner's pining yet indestructible Roy Batty, the vigorous determination of Angelina Jolie's Salt and the gentle shock and confusion of X-Men's Rogue. A hint of the tragic loneliness of the little vampire from Let The Right One In registers in her bleakly feral and often confused expression, too. It is a performance of terrific and inspiring gusto. And not a flinch when she gulps down a raw egg either.
The film is, unavoidably, flawed. The story, itself, is a whopping big cliché for a start, but other little components unravel if analysed too closely. When the past is revealed to us, it fails to make clear just why the two sides are so viciously opposed. There are hints about Marissa that could be alluding to a motivation for her Pharaoh-like masterplan, but this side of things seems a little obscure. Also, come the final act, we are unsure precisely why Erik took on-board such a colossal responsibility in the first place. Plot-holes and contrivances do have a habit of piling-up. The score, which I happen to like, can become a touch overbearing at times. Not the fault of The Chemical Brothers, of course. This is down to how the director wanted to smother certain scenes with the attitude and resilience of Hanna and her fateful quest, and the pulsating aggression of the soundmix, itself. One loyal but bizarre contact who knows Hanna’s history and offers sanctuary to her becomes the most whimsical of Disneyesque caricatures in the process and loiters only just on the right side of being utterly annoying with an unwanted song ‘n’ dance routine. Yet, and this is the important thing, none of these minor caveats matter at the end of the day. The story has an instant hook, and a main character that you never tire of. You care what happens to her because as good as she is ... there is a spiral of quiet despair wrapped around her. When Jason Bourne peeled away the layers of his warped persona, we never truly felt any pity. It is different for Hanna … and this has nothing to do with her being a girl. Bourne had a choice. She did not.
With a unique mood that is all of its own, Hanna strikes out with the sort of teenage rebellion that should be the province of Prof. Xavier’s School for the Gifted but is refitted and flavoured with a delightful splash of the Brothers Grimm that helps it evolve into a modern fable – albeit one that the treats the pulse to an unexpectedly punishing, though thoroughly welcome workout. From his previous endeavours it was clear that Wright had panache and style to burn, but we didn’t know that he had this up his sleeve. Like Saorise Ronan’s doe-eyed super-soldier, he hides such talents under a meek and unassuming mask. Click the right buttons, though, and all hell breaks loose.
In many ways, this feels like an origin story … and, with that in mind, it would be great to see what Hanna did next.
Joe Wright adds something new to his repertoire - a genre hybrid that, like its titular heroine, hits the ground running, takes few prisoners and fuses the macho with the magical and creates a violent modern-day fairytale. An outstanding performance from Saorise Ronan ignites the fable like a Molotov Cocktail. Serene and ethereal one minute, primal and punishing the next, her innocent-abroad is a tour-de-force of identity-stricken angst in a devious, cold-hearted world of dirty tricks and evil masterplans. Gamely supported by Eric Bana in full-on kill mode, and Cate Blanchett as the Disney Witch-Queen given a vicious upgrade, Ronan owns the film.
There may not be much that is inherently new to the plot, but it is the way that Wright delivers it that makes Hanna so refreshingly and unique. The story rockets along despite a liberal sprinkling of cliche and a middle-section lull, becoming a semi-surreal odyssey that is part travelogue, part vendetta ... but all cool.
She may not mean to be, but Hanna is one seriously wild child. Catch her if you can.
Our Review Ethos
To comment on what you've read here, click the Discussion tab and post a reply.