Monday, April 11, 2011

Who is "Hanna"?

It would be easy to draw parallels between "Hanna" and the recently released "Sucker Punch." Both stories feature images of young girls committing acts of violence upon their foes. But while "Sucker Punch" was heavily influenced by video games and anime, "Hanna" echoes older, more primal source material. It fits in nicely with our recent spate of fairy-tale films, though I suspect "Hanna" hews closer to the actual form and function of a fairy-tale than most of the others. The story, boiled down to its essentials, is pure Brothers Grimm. An adolescent girl named Hanna (Saoirse Ronan), has been raised by her father Eric (Eric Bana), in the frozen wilderness of the Arctic. One day, when she's old enough and strong enough, she leaves their forest sanctuary and sets out on a mission to kill the wicked witch, a CIA agent named Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett). Wiegler was responsible for the death of Hanna's mother, and Eric warns that she will do everything in her power to kill Hanna as well, unless Hanna kills her first.

"Hanna" has been marketed as an action film about a child assassin, and action fiends should be happy to find plenty of fights and chases here. Hanna has been prepared all her life for the mission to kill Wiegler, and has been trained in all forms of combat. Killing doesn't faze her, as she demonstrates in the opening scene by bringing down a deer several times her size. But though Hanna is very proficient at dispatching any poor goon who steps her path with ruthless efficiency, she's not ready for the larger world. Hanna can speak several different languages and parrot statistics and dictionary definitions that may be necessary for her mission, but she has to learn to adapt to and appreciate civilization as she goes. This journey of self-discovery forms the backbone of the story, so much of the film is taken up by Hanna's travels through Morocco and Spain, and her first encounters with little things like electricity, music, and boys. She also becomes attached to a nice British family on holiday, particularly their teenage daughter Sophie (Jessica Barden). But will becoming a real girl end up jeopardizing Hanna's mission and endangering her new friends?

Until now director Joe Wright has been known for much more sedate material, like "Pride and Prejudice" and "Atonement." Here, he shows he can shoot an action scene with the best of them, playing with a variety of techniques. Keep an eye out for a fight sequence with Eric Bana that takes place entirely in a single shot. And there's a nighttime sequence where every sound we hear is slowly revealed to be digetic - coming from within the scene. I also liked Hanna's flashy escape from a government holding facility, which plays a bit like a techno music video. The stylization is gratuitous, perhaps, but it keeps up the energy and sufficiently dazzles the eye without resorting to the use of any noticeable CGI. Rather, the most climactic scenes in "Hanna" take place in unglamorous settings rife with decay and thematic significance - a children's playground full of rusting equipment, and an old amusement park in serious disrepair. The whole film is full of these wonderful, stripped-down visuals, but often used in a way that signals that we're still very much inside a fantasy story.

The performances are good all around, but several are seriously underwritten. Saoirse Ronan again proves that she's one of the best young actresses we've got, especially in those moments where she slowly adjusts her behavior to adapt to different social situations, or memorably fails to. The sight of her fighting her way through multiple enemies, often much larger than she, should be ridiculous but somehow isn't. Ronan credibly sells the image and idea of Hanna as an amoral child soldier, but more importantly one with a great desire to be something more. The rest of the characters are fairly flat, though Eric Bana exhibits some signs of depth as Hanna's father and the vacationing family pings as more or less genuine. I was looking forward to Cate Blanchett's performance as the villain of the piece, but though Wiegler is a fun, fearsome caricature of an evil career bitch, she gets too few juicy scenes to herself and is not portrayed despicably enough to really make us root for her demise.

But this is Hanna's story and not Marissa Wiegler's. Perhaps it makes sense that Wiegler is portrayed as a fairy-tale villain, since this is how Hanna sees her. The script follows suit, not as concerned with making sure the events of the assassination story always make sense, as with capturing the smaller character moments and charting Hanna's personal growth. In one of the boldest exposition cheats I've ever seen, Hanna uncovers reams of backstory in a two-minute montage sequence involving a computer. However, there are some deft little instances of humor and well-observed character interactions that help to make up for it.

Make no mistake that "Hanna" is a pure genre picture, and has all the usual gratuitous violence and indulgent logic leaps that come with them, but it does a lot of interesting things with the formula, and it's as entertaining as hell. For those concerned, there is no sexualization of Hanna or really much sexual behavior to speak of, except in the most innocent sense, so it avoids any skeevy exploitation overtones. There are a few grisly moments, however, that make me question the film's PG-13 rating. This begs the question whether "Hanna" is appropriate for young viewers. I'm not sure. Hanna is no role model, but I found her far more engaging and sympathetic than Hit Girl or any of the "Sucker Punch" beauties. And I found the decision she reaches at the end of the film a far more valuable victory.

But I leave that to you to discover for yourself.

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