Hanna opens on the blinding white tundra of Finland like a blank page before the beginning of a fairy tale, and that’s fitting for what the film ultimately delivers. It’s a coming of age story about a young heroine forced to grow up amidst the harsh outside world, and while it’s missing a bag of breadcrumbs it does feature several other elements of the genre including a literal entrance into the maw of a big, bad wolf and even an evil step-mother of sorts. It’s the Brothers Grimm set to the beats of The Chemical Brothers and is as sublime an entertainment as you’d hope to find in a pre-summer action movie.
Young Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) has lived in rural seclusion with a father Erik (Eric Bana) who’s been her sole source of knowledge. He’s trained her to be self sufficient, aware, and deadly with everything from guns to her bony white hands, and now that she’s turned sixteen the time has come for her to enter the real world. She’s not venturing out aimlessly though as her father has prepared her for a very specific mission. That quest will put her life in danger as well as those she meets along the way, but completing it is her only way to freedom. If only good old dad had thought to show his daughter a picture of her target…
Hanna’s journey brings her into contact with brand new experiences and feelings that open her mind as well as her heart, and they start with a family of four who inject both humor and humanity into the proceedings as they travel northern Africa in an RV. She discovers friendship and tingling loins with a girl her own age named Sophie (the fun and sassy Jessica Barden) as well as the warmth of a maternal figure that she’s been missing all these years (Olivia Williams). But along with the good comes the bad in the form of assassins sent to capture or kill her, and while most of them are nameless skinhead thugs their leader, Isaacs, is played to sleazy perfection by Tom Hollander. He brightens every scene with his track suit and devil may care creepiness, which is much preferred to film’s top villain, Marissa (Cate Blanchett) who seems to spend most of her screen time cleaning her big canine teeth.
The heart of the film is Ronan’s turn as the sheltered Hanna forced into the real world with knowledge in lieu of experience. Her awe and wonder at something as simple as a light switch is the perfect balance to the hard edged warrior we first see in the icy fields of Finland. Her love for her father is almost tangible between the two actors, and their bond is strong and palpable even as the two spend most of their screen-time apart. Together they help elevate the film beyond simply a solid action film.
Not to imply there’s anything wrong with the action on display here. Director Joe Wright achieves some honest thrills with action set pieces from holding rooms to parks to subway stations. That last one is a stellar achievement as Wright uses a single tracking shot to follow Eric down to a subway platform as several men move in for the kill, and the subsequent fight is captured in a fluid and constantly moving shot that never obfuscates the action. Like much of the film it’s thrilling to both the eyes and the ears and raises the bar for the rest of the year’s action films.
Just as Ronan’s performance is the film’s greatest strength, she’s also part of it’s biggest weakness. At no point is Ronan, and by extension Hanna, presented as a believable ass kicker. The moves are there and the editing is worked to her benefit, but she’s missing the speed and strength necessary to make her fights against various henchmen convincing. The script gives a quick attempt at explaining her abilities away, an explanation wisely devoid of details, but watching her fight scenes alongside Bana’s brutal and fast brawls makes her appear to be scrapping in molasses by comparison.
The film’s other issues are minor including Blanchett’s Southern twang that grates the ears the more she speaks, the fates of some fairly important characters that go unexplained, and the constant reminders that this is a fairy tale. The young child, the kindly woodsman, the wicked stepmother, and others are all present and accounted for, but lest we forget or miss the subtleties there’s also an actual Brothers Grimm book floating around. Also seemingly amiss is an oddly structured conversation between Hanna and Sophie. The two lay face to face in the back of the RV talking while the others are asleep, but each time the camera shifts to show the speaker the girl has her left cheek to the pillow. Two people can’t face each other while on their sides and both have the same cheek to the pillow. (And no, they weren’t 69’d you pervs.)
None of these issues, including Hanna’s unconvincing fighting skills, detract all that much from the ride because Wright and company keep the action and energy moving from beginning to end. He’s emerged from the shadow of soft and artistic period films into the realm of modern day action and succeeds quite well at entertaining the hell out of an audience. Most of the action and set-pieces impress in design and execution, the acting is strong across the board, and the score by The Chemical Brothers enhances and elevates the thrills both physical and emotional unspooling onscreen. Ronan’s Hanna is already mentioned in the same breath as Natalie Portman’s Mathilda from The Professional, and while it’s apt in regard to the character type I expect it to be just as assured a comparison as Ronan grows up and continues to excel as an actress with each and every role. Let’s just hope she sidesteps the George Lucas phase.
The Upside: An intense and exciting performance from Saoirse Ronan; fantastic fight scene tracking shot; entertaining style and cinematography; Chemical Brothers score is at turns driving, playful, and disorienting; surprisingly humorous at times; Tom Hollander is always deliciously creepy
The Downside: Ronan is just not believable in her ability to beat most folks in hand to hand combat, especially Eric Bana; Cate Blanchett’s accent occasionally annoys; fairy tale element a bit heavy-handed; look, it’s yet another a fight amidst shipping containers
On the Side: Danny Boyle and Alfonso Cuarón were both previously in line to direct the film before Joe Wright came on-board