Wednesday, April 13, 2011
TEFB REVIEW: HANNA
Directed by Joe Wright
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett
Review by Mark Pezzula
Ladies and gentlemen, director Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement) has thrown down the gauntlet. He's set the bar. High. "Make a better movie than this," he's saying. By "this" he means his new film, Hanna. And with Hanna he has indeed made the best film so far of this, admittedly, young year. As fresh as this year is, however, I'm confident when I proclaim that Hanna will be greatly remembered by 2011's end. A lusciously photographed chase movie, Hanna is more than an arty-European take on the Bourne franchise. It's a feral fairy-tale that marries primal action with technological movie wizardry to create a propulsive and singular cinematic experience.
When Hanna opens, we're in the bleak tundra of Finland, where a little girl kills and guts a deer before engaging in a bout of fisticuffs with a bearded man we come to find is her father. Her father has been training her, if not be as deadly with her hands as she is with a pistol, to survive in the most unforgiving conditions using a combination of honed intellect, razor sharp wit, and expertly-trained martial-arts skills. This is Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) and Erik (Eric Bana). And they have been living this way almost since Hanna was born.
"I'm ready", Hanna says one day, and by the next she's flipping a switch her father tells her will bring a woman named Marissa, who wants nothing but to kill Hanna, to their isolated cabin, and won't stop until that happens. With the switch flipped, Erik leaves Hanna to her own devices against Marissa and her minions (really CIA and international operatives), with the plan being that Hanna will meet her father in Berlin, Germany.
That's the basic gist of Hanna, which is carried by a very simple premise. Girl trained to be deadly is let loose in society and attempts to reconnect with her father while being chased by equally (well, maybe not) deadly international undercover agents . It's a paltry plot, and one that is buffered with a fuzzy back-story regarding Marissa's (Cate Blanchett) relationship to Erik and his daughter, but it's a plot that relies on the tropes of fairy-tales and legends as opposed to the rigid structure of the modern movie narrative. Hanna is the young innocent girl lost in the forest, and Marissa is the Wretched Witch of the West, bent on claiming the innocent girl for herself.
That Hanna isn't structurally sound from a screenwriting perspective and is, in fact, hazy regarding the reasons Marissa is so intent on finding Hanna is, I believe, deliberate. Wright has filled his film with overt fairy-tale imagery. Fairy-tales are meant to be interpreted and re-interpreted by different generations and cultures. Whether this was the original intent of the writers or not is unclear. Perhaps it's simply that Wright left much of Seth Lochhead and David Farr's script on the cutting room floor. Whichever explanation, though, takes nothing away from the exhilarating experience of Hanna.
Stylized to an extreme, Wright has crafted a Bourne film filtered through the lens of European expressionism. Utilizing the same fight choreographer as Paul Greengrass used for the last two Bourne films, Wright wisely minimizes the use of the exhausted shaky-cam aesthetic and instead finds a balance between that and fluidly shot fight sequences/chases. I wouldn't go so far as to say that Wright has invented a new kind of action movie, but Hanna certainly strives to be different in a genre replete with boring, stale set-pieces (see: Battle: Los Angeles. A film with a billion more bullets than Hanna, but not 1/100th of this film's intense excitement). And with the film set to a score by The Chemical Brothers, Hanna's set-pieces are primed and visceral, alive and breathtaking.
The film, though, is certainly not wall to wall action. Wright wisely let's Hanna breathe (maybe a little too much so), but keeps the lulls in violence every bit as alive and fresh as gun play. This is especially true when Hanna is tagging along with a young British girl named Sophie and her family through Morocco. After an encounter with the girl (Jessica Barden in an almost scene stealing performance) in what would probably be a one-and-done scene in an American film, Hanna is accepted into their family and spends much of the film experiencing things normal girls Hanna's age would experience - close friendship, boys, familial bickering. It's not brand new ground Wright is treading cinematically here, but it feels genuine, especially given Alwin Kuchler's cinematography and Ronan's work as the guarded but infinitely curious (but not wide-eyed) Hanna.
It's a performance, by the way, that should garner awards attention come ten months from now. It's rare where I see a role so totally owned that I cannot imagine it belonging to anyone else. Hanna is such a role for Saoirse Ronan. I simply cannot think of another young actress able to project the icy glance of a trained killer one moment and then the curiosity of an innocent child the next. Ronan is so good that she out-acts seasoned actors Blanchett and Bana. While both are very, very good in their respective roles, neither come close to the heights Ronan reaches here.
The other stand-out performance in the film is given by Tom Hollander, probably most recognizable in the states for his recurring role in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Here he plays a quirky, transgender loving interrogator hired by Marissa to find Hanna. Dressed in a track suit with a blonde parted mop constantly flopping in his face, Hollander's character Isaac appears quite benign at first. As soon as he begins to whistle a nursery-rhyme-esque melody, however, he becomes a sinister presence throughout the film. It's a weird yet memorable character, and Hollander's portrayal is practically iconic.
Despite being a tad unpolished narratively, Hanna ends up being an insanely satisfying cinematic experience. It offers more than just mindless action and popcorn thrills. It's a beautifully intense and (if you look hard enough) layered film. In an system hemorrhaging unoriginal remakes, reboots, retries, retakes, sequels, and adaptations into the market, Hanna is a like a canister full of nitrous oxide into your lungs.