Sometimes a film’s failings can be completely trumped by its strengths, so much so that it becomes an absolute triumph in spite of itself. This is the case with Hanna, the new action/fairy tale/thriller from director Joe Wright who takes himself completely out of his comfort zone with an entirely new type of project. The resulting visual experimentation from Wright’s involvement is invigorating to the extreme; a feast on the eyes and ears that overcomes the script’s shortcomings. This is the most stylistically engaging recent release to come out in quite some time.
Luckily, the strongest aspect of Hanna story-wise, is Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) herself. This is a girl who has been brought up in the woods of Finland by her father, ex-CIA agent Erik Heller (Eric Bana). She is fully isolated from society in order to be trained as a solider of sorts. She can fight, hunt, speaks many languages and recites facts on a wide variety of subjects. When they both feel she is finally ready, which she is at age sixteen, she sets out on her mission to kill Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), an intelligence operative and research director who is responsible for murdering Hanna’s mother many years ago. Helping Marissa is Issacs, (Tom Hollander, continuing to prove he is one of the best working actors around), a sadistically over-the-top henchman hired to terminate Hanna. He even comes complete with an ominous whistle that announces his usually unwelcome presence.
As said before, this is new territory for Joe Wright. Two of his previous three feature films were the period pieces Pride and Prejudice and Atonement. Without Wright at the helm, this would have been a mediocre film with a fantastic central performance. He has transformed the material into a hip work of art with incessantly strong visual flair. Clearly influenced by many different sources, Wright puts his inspiration to good practice. His use of tracking shots, extreme close-ups, extreme long shots, handheld camera work and much more all contribute to Hanna’s singularly high-powered style. He also keeps a lot of the action in camera, making the choreography stand out. Whether creating an engaging hyper-stylistic action set piece or subjectively aligning the audience with Hanna’s experiences, Wright always has motivations for his choices and it is a delight to work through them while watching the film.
The character of Hanna flourishes first and foremost because of Saoirse Ronan, who continues to hold our gaze with those stone cold yet ever so vulnerable eyes of hers. She plays the character primarily as a girl who is experiencing the world for the first time and second as a soldier with a job to do. We watch her perform basic social tasks and interact with the urban environment, all of which she has never done.
Caring for Hanna comes through seeing the world the way she does, prompted by Ronan’s acting and Wright’s subjective use of the camera. The film immerses itself with Moroccan culture because of how deeply fascinated Hanna is by her observations of the country. A lot of the story revolves around a traveling free spirited couple (Olivia Williams and Jason Flemying) and their aggressively social teenage daughter Sophie (Jessica Branden), with whom Hanna forms a meaningful friendship. She cherishes the time spent with them and these moments give credence to her story and all the evil she has to confront.
Along with Wright and Ronan, the third irreplaceable element of Hanna is the score provided by The Chemical Brothers. As opposed to using music to manipulate the audience into certain emotions, Wright creates several different effects with the sound of hypnotic bass-heavy electronica. The score is first introduced at a very precisely chosen moment. Throughout, the music forms a cohesive relationship with the diegetic sound, with both influencing and informing each other. It is also used to crucially represent and accompany each of the action set-pieces. The music The Chemical Brothers have created here is addictive and is as important anything in Hanna.
Everything I have just touched on in regards to Hanna contributes to the film’s strengths systematically overtaking the film’s weaknesses. The question is what are said weaknesses? For one, the story makes little sense. A lot of the information given to us is vague, unpolished and familiar. Wiegler is an effective villain because of the suitably caricatured performance by Cate Blanchett and not because of anything contained within the story. Getting a handle on the ridiculous plot outside of its basics is like grasping at straws.
Furthermore, Erik and Hanna’s relationship might work when we get a sense of it in the first ten minutes, but their bond cannot sustain itself for long. The impact of the father-daughter relationship is completely lost by the time we need to be invested in them again. Lastly, the plot itself is very predictable even if the way it is presented is exciting. Wright is trying to tell a deeper story than there is here because on some level, the script is inherently working against him. That the director manages to overcome even his own failings here as well as the scripts, is a testament to what an accomplishment Hanna ends up being.
At this point, any film with fairy tale elements that is not a blatant reworking of one is subtle, even if it is not. Thematically, symbolically and metaphorically there is a lot that is overstated in Hanna, but every last drop of it works because it is so forcibly infused with the concoction of Wright’s visuals. Hanna is a film that cannot be recommended enough. It is harsh, bleak and expresses violence with unsettling force for a PG-13 film. None of that feels meaningless because for Hanna, it is all very real and has consequences. It may not get the brain synapses firing away, but it is unlike any other film to come along in a while. When all is said and done, Hanna had me entirely at ‘I just missed your heart’.