I liked this film. I liked it a lot.
Come to think of it, I like all of director Joe Wright's films. Each seems to be crafted by someone who is truly in love with the art of filmmaking. This would seem like a prerequisite for any film, but sadly, I don't believe it is. Beginning with his version of "Pride and Prejudice" in 2005, through "Atonement", "The Soloist" and now "Hanna", he brings a unique sensibility to each, giving each film a different look, a different feel and a different style. While he makes each film unique, he also uses enough of the genre or theme to make it recognizable, allowing our vision of these stories to expand along with him. I mean, it would be pretty silly to watch a version of "Pride" that doesn't at least acknowledge the source material by Jane Austen. But Wright is smart enough to realize he can only push the envelope so far and shows some restraint.
Hanna (Saoirse Ronan, "Atonement") has been raised in the forest by her father, Erik (Eric Bana). They spend their days and nights together in a small cabin living about as far off the grid as humanly possible. Erik spends his time training Hanna to survive; they engage in elaborate fights, hunt, learn to survive in the tundra, teaching Hanna to become strong, to fight against the best of them. Her skill set is amazing, wide and varied, but as a sixteen-year-old teenage girl, she begins to miss something in her life. As she asks questions, Erik begins to realize what she wants. One day, he digs up a small beacon he buried long ago and brings it back to the cabin. If Hanna really wants to see the real world, all she has to do is turn the beacon on. As soon as she does this, Marissa Vigler (Cate Blanchett), a CIA operative, will begin to hunt them. A couple of days later, Erik returns from a hunt to find the beacon blinking. They make arrangements to meet in Berlin and he is off. Hanna waits and soon, a helicopter arrives. She puts up token resistance and soon finds herself in a strange holding facility. She asks to speak with Marissa Vigler and all hell breaks loose.
An interesting thing to note about this film is that the screenplay by Seth Lochhead and David Farr (who wrote some episodes of the British TV series "MI: 5") was listed on both the 2006 and 2009 Blacklist, an annual list of the best-unproduced screenplays circulating in Hollywood. It is kind of easy to see why this screenplay was not immediately snapped up and produced. "Hanna" is a character-driven action film. Most action films are story-driven and directors embrace this because it gives them an excuse to blow up buildings and to choreograph elaborate action sequences. In "Hanna", the characters are the heart of the story, and we spend a lot of time with them, learning about them, watching them navigate this world. There are some terrific action set-pieces, but they aren't the main focus of the film. In fact, in a couple of these, the director seems to believe they aren't important to the characters and we watch only the aftermath of the fight before it. We'll return to this later. But I feel like story-driven action films are more popular, more acceptable for most filmmakers because they don't have to spend too much time on character development, they can concentrate their energy on elaborate explosions, kick-ass car chases and fancy fights.
Joe Wright deserves a lot of credit for recognizing how well-written and how unique this story is and for sticking to the strange and unusual aspect of the screenplay.
There are a lot of unusual touches to the visuals of this story. From the very beginning, when we first join Hanna and Erik in the snow-bound forest, everything appears almost monochromatic. They are living in a world blanketed with white and the wood and animal skins surrounding them provide dark, vibrant slashes of black and gray. Both Hanna and Erik are very pale, their wild hair frequently covered with snow. Even after Hanna is captured and taken to the holding facility, the images remain monochromatic. But now, everything is very gray (lots of concrete and metal) and orange (the surrounding desert and her prison garb, for lack of a better word). As the story moves to Morocco, then France, then Berlin, Hanna seems to find herself in dirty, unkempt areas. Especially when she gets to Berlin, the area she populates seems uncared for, nothing has been painted in a many years and seems faded of all vitality. It is an easier place to go unnoticed. This also helps to carry on with the washed out, monochromatic feel of the film.
When Hanna is held in the unknown facility, it appears like it was originally constructed in the 70s, lots of curves and circular shapes, everything appears a little grimy. This gives us the message she is in a facility that hasn't been used in a while, and now seems to be dusting off the cobwebs. When she eventually escapes, Wright embraces the nature of the facility and really throws us into a different kind of action film. He creates a montage of incredibly brief shots and very quick editing to give us more of a feel of her escape. This sequence seems to pay homage to films of the 70s, borrowing the same sort of editing aesthetic Kubrik, Friedkin and Yates might have used. Lots of brief shots, lots of close-ups of shapes and images, blurry transitions, shots turning and twisting. In a way, this aesthetic also helps us remember that Hanna is new to this world and everything must seem strange and new to her.
Because Wright is more interested in the characters, he spends a lot of time with Hanna and Erik, establishing who they are, what makes them interesting. There are moments of violence, of fighting, but these seem abbreviated somehow. As mentioned before, in many instances, we witness the aftermath of a fight or a violent episode. This does two things. First, it allows our mind to fill in the details of what happened just before. Generally, our minds will fill in more graphic details, more blood, so this is an effective technique to get us involved in the story. It is the same technique that makes a good horror film good. When we don't see everything in explicit detail, our mind fills in the blanks, making it scarier. Second, it reminds us the characters are king and in control of the story in this film.
When we do see the action, it is top notch. Hanna's escape from the holding facility is fast-paced and keeps you on the edge of your seat. Various fist fights are elaborately choreographed and interesting. A gun battle is very quick and leaves your heart racing.
But Wright is clearly more interested in character. After Hanna escapes the holding facility, she walks through the Moroccan desert and happens upon a British family traveling in an old caravan. Dad (Jason Flemyng) and Mom (Olivia Williams) are eager for their children, Sophie (Jessica Barden), a teenager trying to live beyond her years, and Miles (Aldo Maland), to live a rich life in the country, full of travel. When Hanna and Sophie meet, Sophie seems to consider this new, unusual friend a trophy and she wants her around for a while. This sequence of the film seems to diverge from the real story. Hanna basically lives with them for a while as they travel. And as this seems to go on forever, a realization happens. Hanna is learning how to be a, more of less, normal teenage girl from Sophie. It actually works and gives us a deeper feeling for Hanna.
Also, during this sequence, Wright continues to revisit Erik, Marissa and a strange German assassin played by Tom Hollander, keeping us grounded and making the sequence seem more integrated into Hanna and Erik's story.
Saoirse Ronan is really good as Hanna. She is mature beyond her years but also naïve and lacking in the life experiences most of us have in their first sixteen years. Because of this, Hanna is unsure of most of what she is experiencing as soon as she enters the real world. But she knows Marissa is out to get her, so with every challenge she adapts quickly and moves on.
Ronan shows us all of Hanna's vulnerabilities while demonstrating her unique skills. One moment, she may be staring wide-eyed at a television because it is the first one she has ever seen. The next, she is running through a maze of shipping containers trying to elude a trio of assassins. This duality runs throughout the film and helps us get a better picture of this very mature young lady who can kill people with her bare hands yet wonders what the world really holds for her.
Eric Bana is good as Erik. He is a strange fellow and we wonder for quite a while why he has brought his daughter to this small cabin in the woods, to raise her in such extreme isolation. There are a couple of flashbacks giving us the back-story to his character and his relationship with Marissa. A highly efficient killer, he has confidence in his daughter's ability to survive.
Blanchett plays Marissa Vigler, a CIA operative who is working for and towards her own agenda. As she tracks Hanna and Erik, we learn about their relationship and the reasons for her nearly psychotic determination. She really wants to get to Erik and Hanna and we get the sense that much of this is due to her personal relationship with them. She is holding a grudge or wants to clean up a mistake and will stop at nothing until she reaches her goals.
Blanchett is great. Using a sort of Southern twang, you never, ever feel Marissa relaxes. Yes, she smiles and tries to be personable, but there always seems to be a tightly wound rubber band underneath, ready to snap.
Wright quickly and efficiently convinces us of each character's determination to succeed, to beat their adversaries. This builds a lot of tension between the trio and helps to keep our attention riveted to the screen.
"Hanna" is a real treat. A character-driven action film filled with interesting, unusual performances and a hybrid visual style. I think Joe Wright has just been elevated to the short list of directors who make films I have to see on opening weekend.