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Joe Wright’s “Hanna” is a kind of “Bourne Identity” crossed with “Pippi Longstocking,” an action movie for the European arthouse crowd, but it really works because of the little details. Things like sound, set design, acting, cinematography. Little details.
The movie fades in to white. That’s a change. After several seconds, you can discern a few shapes—rocks, a pond, a swan—but everything else is blanketed in snow. The movie fades into silence, too. For a second, I thought the soundtrack was busted it was so quiet. Then we hear rustlings. Nature is waking up and something is being stalked in the snow. There’s a little girl behind a tree in a forest. No, now she’s behind that tree, with bow and arrow ready, and zing!, right into the side of that caribou. The beast bucks, runs, collapses. She walks up. “I missed your heart,” she says by way of apology, before shooting the animal dead. A second later, as she’s gutting it, she is attacked. By her father. Part of her training.
We knew this going in, didn’t we? In a remote area, a father, Erik Heller (Eric Bana), trains his daughter, Hanna (Saoirse Ronan), that ethereal presence from “Atonement” and “Lovely Bones,” to be an assassin. Then the daughter is captured and starts killing people. Coo-ull.
Except she wants to be captured. Didn’t know that. In their remote, snow-covered cabin, he trains her to be strong and watchful. He drills her on the facts of the world—how much the blue whale’s tongue weighs and how far its song can be heard—but less on its beauty. She marvels at planes. She wonders what music is like. He’s training an assassin but she’s really a romantic. At night she looks through an old German version of “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” and at photobooth pictures of a pretty woman—her mother, one assumes—who was killed, one assumes, by whatever agency his father once worked for and is now hiding from. We later learn the killing took place while Hanna, two years old, was in the back of a car looking through that same “Grimm’s Fairy Tales.” An unnecessary touch.
So she goes voluntarily. She activates a beacon, there goes her father, and here comes the agents. They are looking for Heller but find Hanna, and bring her in, where the woman we know to be the villainess of the picture, Marissa (Cate Blanchett, chewing scenery like Gary Oldman), all coiffed red hair and gray fitted suits and obsessive teeth brushing, watches with something like orgasmic rapture as Hanna kills one, two, three agents—including an agent pretending to be her. Marissa is Hanna’s target, because she’s the one who killed Hanna’s mother, but Marissa makes Hanna her target. As she was all along.
Step back a moment. So if the idea was to get Hanna close enough to Marissa to kill her, shouldn’t Erik have trained Hanna on Marissa’s likely subterfuges? How about showing Hanna a photo of the woman? A drawing? Instead, Agent A gets it. Along with Agents B. C, D and E, and Hanna escapes into the desert.
This is the part of the movie that bored me the most. The escape is well-done, and it’s a teenaged girl now rather than Matt Damon in “Bourne” or Angelina Jolie in “Salt,” but we’ve seen it before. Using quick-cut martial arts skills, against a pulse-pounding soundtrack (Chemical Brothers), Hanna remains a step ahead of the entrenched Marissa barking orders to find her. Even the institution she escapes from, with its big, concrete, tunnelly things, seems leftover from “X-Men” sets. Yes, she escapes. What happens next?
What happens next makes the movie. In the desert she runs into a fat-faced, teenaged girl, Sophie (Jessica Barden), who starts gabbing about the pop star M.I.A. and how she only knew Sri Lankan, and was Hanna from Sri Lanka and did she only know Sri Lankan? She can’t hide her disappointment when Hanna begins speaking English.
(Hanna, of course, is a true M.I.A.)
I guess we’ve seen this before, too, the introduction of the ordinary family, like ours, who doesn’t know from assassination or martial arts skills, who is about to be completely out of its element, but, again, it’s handled well. They’re kind of fascinating, this hippieish family driving through North Africa. They have moments of lightness and silliness, but there’s tension between father and mother (Olivia Williams), and mother and daughter. They’re trying to get back to basics, but their basics are, to Hanna, a cornucopia. The mother suspects this, shares a bond with Hanna, who, one suspects, is the daughter she’d like to have, rather than the pop-music-loving, short-shorts wearing daughter she somehow wound up with. These people satisfy the main requirement of secondary characters: they don’t know they’re secondary characters.
It’s in the North African towns, oases in the desert, where the shortcomings of Hanna’s training are further revealed. She grew up in all that white stillness. She knew how many other human beings? One? Now there’s tons of people, traffic, camels, noise. I thought she’d be overwhelmed but the movie merely makes her fascinated. She remains an innocent. She isn’t overwhelmed until she rents a room and can’t work the TV, lights, tea kettle. She’s a trained assassin who’s never turned on a computer. Plus she thinks her assignment is done when it isn’t. This second act is mostly about Hanna discovering the world and herself. She’s like Jason Bourne in this way. Both are lethal assassins who don’t know who they are. All of our assassins are innocent now.
The third-act reveals are disappointing. It turns out Heller isn’t her father. She has no father. She’s a product of agency-engineered eugenics, a project driven, as they say, by Marissa, then aborted by Marissa. It gets a little fuzzy here, actually. One assumes she aborted the project, and the subjects, to save her career, but it hurt to do so. The project was her baby. Now her baby lives! Hanna is exactly what she always wanted. Come to Momma.
Is this the third and biggest idiocy of Erik Heller? First he trains an assassin who knows nothing of the modern world. Then he trains an assassin who knows nothing of her target. But overall he trains an assassin. The agency genetically engineered human beings to be perfect assassins, so he takes this baby out of their reach ... and trains her to be the perfect assassin. He creates exactly what they want him to create.
“Hanna” is an arthouse action-adventure film but ultimately too much action-adventure and not enough arthouse. It caves in to our need for speed and thrills, evil and revenge. It can’t conceive of a resolution that is not a face-off to the death between hero and villain.
I’ll still take it. I’ll take it for the opening shots of white and stillness, and for the suggestion of a family life lived on the dusty road. I’ll take it for the extended, single-shot action sequence in the Berlin subway, and the chase through the dilapidated dinosaurs of Spreepark. I’ll take it for the shot of Hanna, head out of the window of a van speeding through Europe, hair fluttering in the breeze.
April 19, 2011
© 2011 Erik Lundegaard