Director Joe Wright speaks of Hanna as having a fairy tale aesthetic. Kimberly Gadette ponders: If his prior film The Soloist was too emotional, and this film too cold, might his next one, as per the fairy tale Goldilocks and the Three Bears, be just, um, Wright?
"I just missed your heart." These five little words, the first that we hear, are uttered by Saoirse Ronan's 16-year-old titular protagonist Hanna. She might as well have been addressing us, the audience, as we wait for 111 minutes to become fully immersed in a plot that merely teases, crooking its conspiratorial finger at us to follow for answers that might be right around the corner. Or maybe the next one. Or the one after that.
Here's what we do know: Hanna has been raised by her ex-CIA father Erik (Eric Bana) in the remote woods of North Finland, trained to be the perfect assassin. "Adapt or die" is the mantra that she whispers as she goes through her paces, running, hunting, attacking, fighting with or without weapons. She is fluent in all major languages, and has memorized snatches of information that might help her make her way in the world. Her overly-rehearsed fictive biography tumbles out of her mouth in a rush, entailing her address, background, favorite schoolmates, hobbies, activities and the name of her pretend pet dog. But since her home-schooling has been solely reliant on an encyclopedia, a book of fairy tales and life lessons from Dad, she is ill-prepared to communicate with others on a social level.
As she's often discussed with her father, when she feels ready, she will push a red button on a box, which will summon the enemy (Cate Blanchett's CIA agent Marissa) to come kill her. As in other modern fairy tales (Harry Potter, anyone?), only one can live.
After the button is pushed, Erik takes off to do whatever he's supposed to do. Act as a decoy? Try to hunt down Marissa himself? We're never quite sure. Soon father and daughter are criss-crossing Europe separately, with bad guys hot on their respective trails.
Think La Femme Nikita facing down Bullwinkle Moose's Natasha Fatale, incorporating breakneck running á la Run Lola Run (but without that film's clever conceit of random events leading to alternate realities). Add in set pieces recycled from early Fellini, and voila! Hanna is served.
And yet sadly, Hanna is not served – certainly not as well as it should be. When it slows down to a lope, which is rare, the film is fascinating to behold. The opening scenes between Hanna and Erik are marvelous, the two of them training together in the frosty Finnish woods. Back in their rough cabin home, lit only from the dancing flames of their fireplace, they share a close, often-wordless father/daughter bond. And then he tests her by threatening her life in the middle of the night, just to make sure she's alert even when she's asleep. Tough love indeed. When Erik sees that Hanna has finally pushed the button, ending their isolated life together forever, the sorrow is palpable.
Playing the assassin with the piercing blue eyes, fit for little else other than bare-fisted survival, Ronan creates another indelible performance as a teenage cipher who has no understanding of the modern-day world. Amazingly, this actress comes to each new portrayal without relying on personal quirks or tricks, standing out among her peers with a true excellence.
That said, like the CIA operatives' gunfire, the supporting cast has its hits and misses. In the hit department, the second act is enlivened when Hanna befriends a family on vacation, the first humans she's ever spoken to apart from her dad. We get Olivia Williams' über-mom, Jason Flemyng's amusingly beleaguered dad and Jessica Barden's slavishly hip teenage daughter, the antithesis of Hanna. They look upon each other like aliens from other worlds, simultaneously wary and intrigued.
But Tom Hollander as a bleached blond heavy (literally) makes no sense, as he huffs and puffs in deadly pursuit of nimble assassins, rather than lounging around his decadent sex club bar with a cocktail in hand. However, the oddest misstep is in the writing, and ensuing portrayal, of the two-dimensional malevolent spy Marissa. If an actress of Blanchett's caliber can't crack the superficial exterior of this wicked stepmother archetype, then no one can.
While Joe Wright (Atonement, The Soloist) is a highly accomplished director, it is puzzling that he chose to glide solely on the icy surface of this film. We can't expect a complex back story for the isolated Hanna, but how about Erik and Marissa? Threads of a plot raise the ever-so-brief head: odd DNA, a car wreck, a dead grandma, burned CIA files ... but it's not until the last gasping light of the third act that we're thrown a bone. And a meager one at that.
Still, Wright's visuals are stunning to behold. Reminiscent of Atonement's ghoulish carnival settings of abandoned whimsy at Dunkirk, here the principals try to mow each other down amid a Brothers Grimm funhouse. It's almost as if the filmmakers are apologizing, using the set pieces to make up for the lack of explanatory motivation. We're diverted with a foggy prehistoric animal park, a gaping wolf's mouth serving as a tunnel's entrance, an underground subway teeming with subhuman creeps, Moroccan camels, another chase-me, chase-me scene above and around blocks of shipping containers, etc., etc. We can hardly catch the film's breath.
If only we knew what the damn chasing and shooting was all about.
Rating on a scale of the 5 times that Hanna aims to please: 2.5
Release date: US: 8 April 2011; UK: 6 May 2011
Directed by: Joe Wright
Screenplay by: Seth Lochhead and David Farr
Story by: Seth Lochhead
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett, Tom Hollander, Olivia Williams,
Jason Flemyng, Jessica Barden
Rating: US = PG-13; UK = 12A
Running time: 111 minutes