Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Review: Hanna

Hanna is a brilliant, unrelenting action thriller in the mold of the Bourne trilogy that will grab you by the front of the shirt and never let go.  It visually extraordinary for an action flick, features stunning performances and an amazing score, and it is undoubtedly the finest mainstream movie released so far this year.
Now that I’ve gotten the hyperbolic, poster-ready quotes out of the way, I should probably admit that this isn’t exactly the majority opinion.  Reviews are a good deal more mixed than that.  Oh, it’s got a 70% positive score on RottenTomatoes, but the majority opinion seems to be that it’s just a decent little thriller, nothing very special.  It’s only got a 57% among the “Top Critics” listed there, and even positive reviews from the likes of Roger Ebert and Glenn Kenny don’t rise above the level of “solid movie, worth watching.”  No one else probably cares about this, but I seriously loved this movie, and I’m rather disconcerted that no one else seems to share that love.  It’s not so much that big-time critics are divided on the movie, but virtually every blogger I read who has reviewed the movie has had a “meh” reaction or worse.  This guy is literally the only person I could find who feels the same way I do, and when you read as many movie sites as I do, that’s rather surprising.
So anyway, your mileage may vary, but I think the movie’s brilliant, and I’m standing by that opinion.  The story finds the titular Hanna as a teenage girl living alone with her father in the arctic forest, hunting caribou with bow and arrow and constantly training in the arts of war.  It turns out that her father, an ex-CIA agent/assassin, has been preparing her for the moment when she will return to civilization and take revenge on agency higher-up Marissa Wiegler for the death of her mother.  When Hanna feels she is ready, her father (Eric Bana) has her flip a switch, notifying the agency where they are, and setting off a non-stop chase thriller filled with intense, brutal action scenes that jumps from Finland to Morocco to Spain to Germany.
The performances here are all excellent--not necessarily nuanced, but tough and bold and exactly what they need to be.  Cate Blanchett plays the villain role as Marissa Wiegler, and while her Southern accent cuts in and out and sounds a bit awkward, she exudes cruel professionalism from every pore and manages to toss in several little character details that suggest a more complex motivation than the script really gives her.  Her oily henchman is played by Tom Hollander of the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, and he is about as creepy and evil as it is possible to be given his limited lines and screen time.  Eric Bana also has few lines, but he nevertheless manages to convey a small bit of the complexity of a man so driven by revenge he turns his daughter into a weapon.  Does he really love her?  Does he have her best interests at heart?  The movie is ambiguous on this score, but while some might count it a weakness I call it economy in storytelling.  This is a thriller, not a morality drama, and I find the ambiguity intriguing.
The star, of course, is Saoirse Ronan, and what a star she is.  She is a force of nature in this movie.  I have not seen any of her other movies yet, but based on the acclaim she garnered for those entirely different roles (including an Oscar nomination) and her incredible work here I feel I have to call her the most gifted actress of her generation.  With her bleached-blonde hair, too-white skin, and pale eyes she is every inch the teenage killer, expert in every weapon as well as hand-to-hand combat.  Nevertheless, she somehow manages to convey the feelings of a real girl out on her own for the first time, experiencing the wonders of the world with awe and occasionally confusion.  
This comes through in a sequence in the middle of the film when she meets up with a British family on holiday and makes friends with the motor-mouthed, celebrity-obsessed daughter (a hilarious Jessica Barden).  This interlude provides the biggest laughs of what is a surprisingly humorous film, as well as the only moments of tenderness.  Hanna is a killer, but she begins to want more. The British is family is comically liberal and lenient--the parents are hippies who talk of getting back to nature as they tour Third World countries in their giant trailer, letting their daughter run off with boys for a night on the town in Morocco--a sharp contrast to Hanna’s Spartan upbringing.  Nevertheless, this family, mildly dysfunctional as it is, is still suffused with love and real human connection that Hanna has never known.  Unfortunately, her upbringing proves entirely necessary for her future, while the modern family is unprepared.

The direction of the film is splendid, rather a surprise from Joe Wright.  I have only seen his adaptation of Pride and Prejudice before this, and it struck me as half of quite a good movie.  The first half of the film was beautifully done, centering on a wonderful ball scene filled with intricate tracking shots in and around the dancing and social maneuvering, clearly influenced by Welles, Renoir, and Altman.  Over the course of the film, though, the beauty of the cinematography began to overwhelm, as scene-necessitated tracking shots gave way to picturesque vistas that wallowed in sentimentality and heaving bosoms instead of taking advantage of the humor of the situation.  I have not seen Atonement, though it looks quite good despite mixed reviews, or The Soloist, which looks quite bland and uninteresting.  In Hanna, though, Wright steps up to the plate and succeeds enormously.  He has admitted that the action scenes terrified him, that he wasn’t sure if he could do it, and he looked to several other films and filmmakers for influence.  He pulls it off in grand style, filling every frame with beautiful sets, evocative lighting, and sharply blocked fights that he shoots clearly, not with the shaky cam of Michael Bay or Paul Greengrass, nor in slow motion like Zack Snyder, but with clean, well-defined shots that let us see the action.  Except, it should be noted, in a few of Hanna’s fights, when he cuts it up in quick, elliptical editing that shows the results of her violence without trying to show how she did it.  This fits well with the style of the film, but it also avoids putting too much pressure on Ronan’s ability to fight convincingly.  After all, she is tiny compared to many of her assailants, and in real life she could never take them out.  His techniques work, though, and I never once doubted her lethal abilities, though I can see how others might.
Pulsing along with the gorgeous imagery is one of the most unique and exciting soundtracks in recent memory, written and performed by The Chemical Brothers.  The music is alternately loud and menacing and light and bouncy, adding immeasurably to the overall effect of the film.  Wright has known the Brothers for years, and he brought them into the process to quite an extensive degree.  Apparently “the sound effects editor took some of their music and turned it into the sound effects and they took some of the sound effects and turned it into music,” creating an exciting electronic score that nevertheless feels very organic to the film.
I found Hanna to be a stylish blast of adrenaline, a purely kinetic thriller akin to The Bourne Ultimatum, Aliens, or The Road Warrior; a movie whose one purpose is to give as intense and exciting a ride as possible.  I loved it, and I would not hesitate to rank it with those films I just listed as one of the finest action thrillers of its generation.  I can't imagine a situation where it won't be among my favorite films of the year.


  1. Hey, I, too was hardpressed to find fellow bloggers giving this more than a mixed review.

    But I loved it -

    And so did this guy -

  2. It is indeed a great review David, but like some others I was in the fair to good range with it. I must check it out a second time, especially since I adored Wright's last film ATONEMNT, which was my favorite film of 2008. I'll definitely agree The Chemical Brothers' soundtrack was unforgettable.