Wednesday, April 20, 2011

review: Hanna

Hanna (2011, Joe Wright)

It has been some time since a genuinely different major action movie had snuggled its way into theatres. There clearly have been some good ones roaming in and out of the multiplexes, but nothing which made an effort to stand out in any essential way. What’s more, few of the attempts to pit female characters in the spotlight of thrilling adventure stories making significant inroads in the market, be it thanks to box office or critical success. Along comes Joe Wright’s Hanna, based on a script that, as word has it, was kicked around Hollywood for some time before anybody legitimately stepped up to the plate to adapt the story. What on a surface level seems like a run of the mill Jason Bourne-esque spy thriller turns out to be far more than the curious viewer may have bargained for.

Wright’s film centers on the titular Hanna (Saoirse Ronan), a young teen living with her father Erik (Eric Bana) in a cabin somewhere in the deep forests of Germany. The daughter-father duo is no ordinary family couple. Without revealing very much in the early going, it is evident that the father has groomed the young girl into a calculated machine who can hunt, kill and defend herself from threats even when in deep sleep. Hanna has spent almost her entire life in this secluded area of the world, mostly because there is a CIA agent, Marissa (Cate Blanchett), determined to destroy them both. There is obviously a history between the two sides, and when Hanna alerts her pursuer of her whereabouts, a stunning game of cat and mouse begins.

Hanna feels like a case where the realisation of a stranger than usual film is thanks in large part to a director’s clout, in this case Joe Wright who has received a serious amount of praise in recent years, most notably for 2007’s Atonement.  Saoirse Ronan’s heroine is atypical. She has experienced almost nothing of the world outside of her own little existence. No friends, no television, and her home does not even have electricity. Bed time stories consist of her father Erik reading from an encyclopaedia. Things such as music interest her for what it apparently represents, even though she has never heard it before. When time comes to exercise the skills her father bred into her, villains had better start to run! The side characters also have their share of quirks. Cate Blanchett delivers her lines through the thickest American accent uttered by a British actor or actress I have ever heard (that is not meant as a criticism however. The movie is so off kilter that the accent works wonders) and brushes her teeth until her gums bleed. One of Marissa’s hit men, Isaacs (Tom Hollander), whom she calls in to liquidate both Hanna and her father Is both bisexual and apparently a pervert. After escaping temporary captivity from the Marissa’s clutches, fate has Hanna make the acquaintance of a young English girl touring the world with her parents who says she would ‘like to be a lesbian,’ followed shortly thereafter by a scene in which the two teens bond in an especially intimate manner (in bed) made all the more odd and raw by the fact that Hanna has never had any sort of friend, be they male or female. Even the escape from captivity briefly mentioned above is something to behold as Hanna flees through the vast corridors and tunnels of a sophisticated underground base of operations for the CIA…only to discover that it is located in Morocco. Lastly, there is the amusement park where her father’s friend  awaits her in a house that seems straight out of a children’s fairy tale. To top it off, the choice of a traditional, symphonic score was avoided in favour of brand new material for the Chemical Brothers, and let it be known that it packs a solid punch. Much like everybody else, I was an admirer of Daft Punk’s work on Tron Legacy, and I feel it can be argued that what the Brothers do in Hanna is even better. Hanna is not a case of a movie so very much ‘out there’ that people will be turned off, but it has more than enough ingredients to set it apart from most other mainstream action films. 

Of the many things the film excels at, one that made quite the impression on the author was its handling of the titular character. Despite the film’s rapid fire pace and adherence to the philosophy that audiences want high amounts of no holds barred action, Hanna’s arc remain worth the viewer’s time for the entire duration of the movie. Even better, her interaction with the world around her, both before and after her adventure begins, is cleverly dealt with. The opening scenes provide a clear definition of where she comes from and how she understands the world, the one familiar to her at least. It’s a harsh lifestyle that teaches her to be strong, ruthless and alert at any moment. Survival is of the utmost importance with everything else being secondary. Once Hanna flees Marissa and ventures into the ‘real’ world in order to reunite with her father, the variety of her interactions with people and environments that may be deemed more normal than her stay true to her nature. Some are amusing, others are psychologically taxing, such as the fantastic scene in which Hanna is left alone in a room in which a television, a fan and an electric water boiler are left on. Ronan herself gives a very good performance that balances out her character’s desire for a sense of normalcy (like having a friend), yet still accepts her fate and the inherent danger involved in her very existence.  That balance of maturity and youth comes across in her acting quite nicely.

Another question mark surrounding the film upon its release related to how exactly director Wright, known far more for his period piece dramas, would deliver the action. It would be a lie to say that I could have predicted what we got. Not only are the chases and fights filmed with assurance and lively pacing, but the director throws in a few brilliant twists for good measure. The two that stood out for me were, first, that darn escape sequence I keep coming back to in this review, which does not merely have Hanna flee her pursuers in the tunnels, but also puts on a light show which makes the entire sequence resemble a night club, and the second being the tracking shot sequence when Eric Bana leaves the airport in Berlin and quickly notices that he is being followed. The reader can most likely guess what happens next, but it is something else entirely to see it.  Great stuff.  In fact, one more scene that had me riveted involved Eric Bana’s assassin perform a surprise assault on the hotel room Blanchett’s character is staying in. The editing and cinematography involved is balanced in such a way as to stylistically reverse the roles of the characters, with Blanchett the one under duress needing to flee and Bana suddenly becoming the big, bad monster on the prowl.  There are countless examples which demonstrate how Wright and his crew thought outside the box when deciding how to present the more high octane moments, a testament to truly creative filmmaking.

It is very easy for me to write high praise in favour of Hanna. Action films make up a significant portion of the films I watch (as can be determined by judging the sort of films reviewed at this blog), so when one comes along that actually shakes things up a bit, it is time to sound the alarm. Working up expectations to a ludicrous degree is not something Between the Seats strives for, so here’s hoping that no one heads into Hanna with insurmountable expectations, but it definitely has a style of its own. Not only is it the single best action film to be released in 2011 by a country mile, it earns a very safe spot among my favourite films in general released in North America in 2011.


Rachel [ f.g.i. ] said...

I loved HANNA, though it was sleek and smart especially for an action-thriller. Happy to hear that you liked it!

edgarchaput said...

@Rachel: It is a blast. As mentioned in the review, I especially loved what the film does with the character of Hanna once her world and ours collide. Fun stuff and very well written.

I have heard a few complaints about the Tom Hollander character, like how he wasn't a convincing assassin. What did you think?

Anonymous said...

Saoirse Ronan is kind of like a younger Cate Blanchett -- they both have that oddly ethereal beauty thing going on, and they're both capable of stunning range.

edgarchaput said...

@Mcarter: As a talented actress, I think that Ronan can, one day, be at the same level as Blanchett. She has the acting chops to pull off a lot. With regards to looks (which isn't something I like to debate in my reviews, but it's fine for the comments section), I actually don't think she's THAT beautiful unlike what a lot of people are saying, but that's just me.

Anonymous said...

I suppose I should get around to seeing this ... everyone's raving about it.