(by Dustin Putman
A B-movie with astonishing A-level aesthetics, "Hanna" is a decided example of style over substance, but, boy, what style it has. The grim, beautiful fairy tale that the crummy recent "Red Riding Hood" ought to have been, the picture is a dream of sumptuous art direction, set design, music, and editing. Tautly directed by Joe Wright (2009's "The Soloist") and written with a minimalist's restraint by first-timers Seth Lockhead and David Farr, there is a vaguely disorienting quality to its travelogue-fueled lapses from reality, a whirlwind of grit and foreboding whimsy. This element is what first and foremost catches the viewer's eye even when the film's plot trajectory is on more familiar ground. Article continues below
Saoirse Ronan (2009's "The Lovely Bones") is an impeccable burst of conflicting emotions as 16-year-old Hanna Heller, raised in the wilds of Finland by her papa, ex-CIA agent Erik (Eric Bana). Cut off from outside civilization and trained with the capabilities to be a ruthless assassin, Hanna has been made aware that when she is ready to go off on her own, she can. In doing so, though, the flick of a switch will instantaneously reveal their location to government officials who will stop at nothing to capture her and kill Erik. With plans to meet up with her dad again, Hanna flees, her journey taking her from just below the Arctic Circle to Morocco to Berlin, Germany. Hot on her trail following a botched capture is Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), a cold, calculating CIA operative with an unusual connection as yet uncovered by Hanna.
"Hanna" is a startling chase thriller, a delicious dark fable, an observational slice-of-life about a young woman discovering the boundless reaches of the world around her, and then something more that cannot be revealed. The film has been stripped of its fat, the pacing taking time to linger and eat up the story's details while, at the same time, keeping in stride with a gripping rhythm that builds in momentum as the stakes rise. Because the narrative is so no-nonsense, it would be easy to see the screenplay as underwritten. Indeed, there could have been greater depth lent to Hanna, Erik and Marissa, but director Joe Wright decides that all the viewer needs to know can be boiled down to a few key characteristics. The way Hanna screams in awe and slight fear the first time she sees a plane fly overhead, or the way she has been trained as a killer, but is a caring soul underneath who simply has been raised to protect herself from harm no matter what. The way Erik tries to explain music to a daughter who has never heard it, or the way he tries to talk her out of leaving him without once standing in the way of her going. The way Marissa brushes her teeth each morning until they bleed, or the way that she both secretly dreads and marvels at Hanna as she pursues her, not about to abort her mission.
It is fascinating to view Hanna as a heroine who nevertheless commits actions an antagonist might in a safer film. Deadly when provoked or sensing she's in danger, she does what she needs to in order to survive, yet is overwhelmed by other human instincts that tell her it is not right. She genuinely doesn't want to hurt anybody else—she even makes nice with a family (Tom Hollander, Olivia Williams, Jessica Barden, Aldo Maland) traveling across Africa and Europe, who take her in for a time—well into an adolescence also posing in many ways as her birth. When she cursorily tests the waters of her own sexual awakening with a kiss that goes no further, it speaks volumes about where she is in her growth as a person. Eye-catching with platinum blonde hair and eyebrows, Saoirse Ronan is terrific, sympathetic and physically daunting. Her Hanna is likable and menacing at once, a blank slate who knows no better and is driven by curiosity and protectiveness. As Erik, Eric Bana (2009's "The Time Traveler's Wife") exhibits an undoubted closeness and love for his daughter, while Cate Blanchett (2010's "Robin Hood") brings a fierce sense of calm and calculation to the shady Marissa Wiegler.
Visually and aurally, "Hanna" is a highlight so far in 2011. Pulse-pounding and alluringly unusual, the music score from The Chemical Brothers is impossible to describe but fits each scene like a leather glove. Bone-cracking sound effects slyly give the impression the viewer is seeing more graphic content than they are (still, the fact that this received a PG-13 rating while "The King's Speech" got an R from the MPAA is ludicrous). The imagery, buoyed all the more by cinematographer Alwin H. Kuchler's (2010's "Morning Glory") lensing, is spellbinding, like the very "Grimm's Fairy Tales" Hanna reads in her Finnish cottage, a snow-covered wonderland of ice and wood right outside her door. Diverse location shooting and production design across Finland, Germany and Morocco adds to the film's otherworldly flavor, as does a revelatory third act set in an abandoned Berlin amusement park. A shot of Cate Blanchett's Marissa Wiegler standing in the mouth of the Big Bad Wolf is downright ingenious, a villain in sheep's clothing. The moral of "Hanna," like the question of what happens next, is left intentionally ambiguous. The circular nature of the story, however—Hanna's lonesome run-ins with a reindeer in the opening scene and a key character in the last are identical—is used as provocative counterpoint to her desire to stop the chain of violence strewn behind her. The situation may be repeated, but where Hanna is at the end is emotionally a very different place. From here, she can go anywhere.