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Entries in Hanna [2011] (1)

Wednesday
Apr132011

Hanna (2011)

Father/Daughter Dance

Joe Wright has directed some of my favorite movies of the last six years, none of which I'd had any interest in seeing before I watched them.  At first glance, Atonement and Pride and Prejudice look like stuffy Merchant/Ivory productions, but beneath their Proper Affairs of Society lay tragedies of love, class, and war that transcend time, place, and genre.  His latest film, Hanna, examines the trials of parenthood through an art-house version of the kid-assassin thriller.

Wright's Atonement prodigy Saoirse Ronan stars as Hanna, a fifteen-year-old girl raised by her father, Erik (Eric Bana) in a secluded German forest.  Under his tutelage, she learns to hunt and field dress deer, defend herself in hand-to-hand combat, and memorize whole volumes of encyclopedia just as easily as her elaborate alternate-identity cover story.  You see, dad is an ex-CIA spook with a secret whose survivalist lifestyle is meant to prepare Hanna for the day when his former handler, Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), comes after them.

Hanna has been trained specifically to kill Wiegler and, following some events I won't spoil, winds up in a black site cell in Morocco that's overseen by Wiegler herself.  Despite the best efforts of the facility's well-armed staff, Hanna escapes into the desert.  She befriends a bratty English teen named Sophie (Jessica Barden) and her infatuated younger brother, Miles (Aldo Maland); their hippie parents (Olivia Williams and Jason Flemying) are dragging them across the country in an RV, and Hanna comes along for the ride.

Wiegler, meanwhile, recruits a short, creepy European assassin named Isaacs (Tom Hollander) and his two creepier skinhead goons to kill Hanna--and anyone she comes into contact with.  As you might imagine, the rest of the film plays out as a cat-and-mouse game full of daring escapes, twisted revelations, and an ultimate, brutal showdown between good and evil.  This genre, though sparse, has its own clichés that have been tested and refined in movies like The Professional and Kick-Ass.

What sets Hanna apart is the sheer artistry of Wright's execution.  It's as if he knew that the top-notch performances of his cast and The Chemical Brothers' beautiful techno-organic score would be crowd-pleasers on their own, but he wanted to push for indie credibility through the use of bizarre staging, dizzyingly obtuse camerawork by Alwin H. Kuchler, and a wardrobe and set design aesthetic that can best be described as Eurotrash Hansel and Gretel.  The mind-blowingly strange choices the director makes here render Hanna a must-see, and casts even the more predictable elements in a wonderful, often terrifying new light.

Take, for example, the vacationing family.  We've seen Isaacs and his men murder everyone in sight, so it's inevitable that Hanna's newfound friends are dead meat, too.  We don't get to see them die, but we are treated to their last moments ways that will make you squirm.  The backdrop of their demise is a shipyard, and Isaacs' flunkies have separated each victim into a different container for interrogation. Mom is tied up, with floodlights blinding her; the kids sit crying and answering questions as best they can; it's when we see what's been done to Dad--or what may be done to him--that the scene gets really claustrophobic and strange: He's sitting at the back of a container that's filled with lawn-mowers, and his shaking nervous body is framed with their handles. Wright uses weird angles to convey the puzzlement and fear of the victim; he doesn't know what's going on, and it takes us a moment to figure out just what the hell we're looking at.

The film is also paced differently than what you might expect.  Wright and screenwriters Seth Lockhead and David Farr explore some dark territory here, a lot of it unstated.  It's just as thrilling to watch Hanna, a girl so sheltered she's never seen a light switch or heard music, freak out during her first stay in a cheap hotel room as it is to watch her break peoples' necks.  By taking the time to invest in their characters, to force us to feel their anxiety in the quieter moments (as well as some fleeting joy), the filmmakers give us rich, distinct points of view instead of a false black-and-white dichotomy. These moments are so exciting and rewarding that they can only be balanced out by action scenes of an equally challenging nature--which Wright makes gorgeous if not original.

Of course, a movie like this is only as good as its star, and Ronan is quite amazing as Hanna.  With her practically albino complexion and perpetually curious (sometimes dazed) expression, she plays a cipher in search of a soul.  Hers is the role of the alien visiting Earth for the first time, even though she's a native; she has no filter for polite conversation, and sees everything in the world as puzzle pieces to be treasured and matched up.  This charming naivete turns off like a switch, though, when she goes into hunting and survival mode, and it's to Ronan's credit that these dueling aspects of her malleable personality never seem contrived.  I bought Hanna as a robot, as a killer Pinnochio who wants only to understand what she is and then to figure out what that means.

My one complaint about the film is its rating.  It's clear that some of the fight scenes and darker material were trimmed to, I guess, maximize audience attendance.  I understand the logic, but the decision speaks to the ignorance of whoever made it.  Okay, maybe "ignorance" isn't the right word; but chopping out the gore and violence cheapens the point of certain scenes.  The film spends so much time selling its unique, adult qualities that to undermine those qualities in the name of appeasing children seems hypocritical (I had the same problem with the Liam Neeson actioner, Taken, which was diced all to hell in the name of making a cuddly revenge picture).  I just hope the home-video version comes out uncut.

It's still really early in the year, and already I've filled two of my Best of the Year slots.  I hope that the other eight will be as daring and imaginative as Hanna.   But I won't hold my breath.

Note:  The reason I didn't mention Joe Wright's The Soloist is because I still can't imagine a world in which the film advertised in that trailer is anything but atrocious.  Hey, I've been wrong before; but I'm not going to take the plunge until someone tells me the water's safe.