Joe Wright’s latest, Hanna (2011), is its own kind of animal. Part Bourne Trilogy, part fairy tale, it is composed of elements audiences have seen before but creates its own odd and unfamiliar terrain. Following the travails of 16-year-old Hanna (Saoirse Ronan), raised by her exiled CIA operative father, Erik (Eric Bana), we are given limited information and left with more questions than answers. We know that they live in complete isolation near the Arctic Circle, housed in a cabin and surrounded by snow. We know that Hanna’s mother is dead. We know that both are hiding from someone who wants them dead. Most of all, we also know that Hanna has been rigorously trained to maim and kill.
It is eventually revealed that the source of their troubles is Erik’s former boss, Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), who immediately sets out to eliminate father and daughter when their cover is blown. She is aided by a former cohort, Isaacs (a frightening, bloated Tom Hollander), in recovering information and otherwise torturing and dispatching of anyone they interrogate. With her flat, booming voice and emotionless mask of a face, Blanchett gives Marissa a formal coldness that could intimidate any 16-year-old girl. But Hanna is no ordinary teenager. Passing from one situation to the next like a pale angel of death, it becomes quickly evident that she doesn’t know how to live but knows how to survive. When separated from her father and captured by the CIA she simply breaks out of their holding compound, leaving a pile of bodies in her wake. Marissa watches this go down via security cameras: Hanna mercilessly killing fellow operatives, a psychiatrist and Marissa’s stand-in (Michelle Dockery). Everyone is dead within mere seconds.
“Oh… my,” she observes.
This understatement of emotion is standard in Hanna and the detachment only becomes more apparent as the film moves forward. Wright has no interest in sentimentalizing the material; neither does he have any interest in stylizing its violence. There is no violent act in Hanna that could be described as “cool.” In tearing away the stylization we are left with just how remorseless and brutal these acts are. What is more disturbing is how often they happen and who suffers from it. All four leads kill innocent people. No one is spared- women, children or the elderly. In one instance several secondary characters simply disappear from the film but their demise is easy to infer. This becomes part of the story’s ruthless code. In Hanna friendship is impossible, compassion is punished and honesty is a one-way ticket to death.
This isn’t to say that the film is cold as ice from beginning to end. As the fledgling Hanna makes her way through Morocco and Spain she exposes herself to humanity for the first time in her short life. It is during these scenes that the film verges on an awkward coming-of-age story, giving Ronan an opportunity to show some needed naiveté and depth (“Where do you come from?” a Moroccan man asks her. “The forest,” she replies innocently.). At one point Hanna indulges in a double date with her new friend Sophie (Jessica Barden) and nearly shares a kiss with a boy. These scenes are the most emotionally effective and funny but the claustrophobia of what is closing in on her makes each moment of wonderment almost unbearable. What is going right for Hanna simply can’t last, and soon enough she is propelled back toward bloodshed and anguish.
Near the ending the film begins to sink in its own weirdness. All is revealed (or not revealed): Hanna was a genetically modified embryo. Erik was never her father. Marissa is obsessed with Hanna and may want to own her rather than destroy her. It is even implied that Marissa may be a hermaphrodite and has contributed DNA or “fathered” Hanna herself. After these revelations and several fights Hanna and Marissa are the only two left standing. They face off in an abandoned amusement park that recreates storybook imagery and childhood nightmares. What happens is to be expected but isn’t as satisfying as it could be. It’s suddenly over but there are unanswered questions: is the CIA still involved? Was Hanna in love with Sophie? Is she bleeding to death? Why did the camera keep lingering on Marissa’s green shoes?
Hanna is director Joe Wright’s fourth outing. Overall I would liken it to his last film, The Soloist (2009), a movie that provokes some thought but isn’t as masterful as his previous works, Pride & Prejudice (2005) and Atonement (2007). The performances are strong, the images striking, the soundtrack memorable (an electronic score by The Chemical Brothers) but is still lacking the power it could have wielded.
The film is bookended with scenes in which Hanna mortally wounds her target with an arrow. In both cases she approaches them and murmurs, “I just missed your heart” before delivering a death blow. Unfortunately Hanna missed my heart. My gut too. Despite this, it’s still an intriguing and at its best unbelievably tense and strange.