Hanna makes a sound argument that action movies need not be artless, though maybe when the person at the helm is Joe Wright the final outcome can only inevitably attain a level of artfulness worth observing. Wright is responsible for 2007’s Atonement, a strikingly beautiful film that remains mostly empty despite its impressive craftsmanship; where that movie falls short and fails as a complete picture, though, Hanna succeeds, melding strong action sequences with the same level of artistry and layering both atop a fairy tale narrative and a healthy, vibrant take on the tropes of movies in the international espionage tradition.
Wright’s eponymous protagonist is met killing a reindeer in the snow blanketed woods of Finland before getting into a fist fight with her old man, Erik (Eric Bana). It’s harmless play, though; Erik’s just being a responsible father and teaching Hanna everything he knows about arts both martial and intellectual, molding her into a tool for retribution against coldly sinister CIA operative Wiegler (Cate Blanchett). All their grand plans go awry, as these schemes so often do, and Hanna, a girl born in the wild and unexposed to a life free of violence and the threat of her own demise, must venture on her own to complete her father’s mission and maybe discover a thing or two about childhood and humanity in the process.
There’s a lot about Hanna which sounds generic on paper, and there’s maybe an argument to be made about the debt it owes to films like the Bourne trilogy. But Wright’s film distinguishes itself from other entries in its particular sub-genre in a number of ways, least of which being the numerous nods and references to classic fairy tales and folk stories. In fact Hanna often feels so much like a fairy tale itself that it never completely reads as a thriller about government’s shady secrets and how its heroine fits into the schemes of its agents; truthfully the film has as much kinship with stories such as Hansel and Gretel as it does with the works of a Robert Ludlum or a Tom Clancy. And why not? Every detail of Hanna‘s events can be boiled down to a global chase between a malevolent witch and an innocent young girl. Hell, Wiegler even gets her own variation of “I’ll get you, my pretty,” in the film’s climax– though wisely, Wright refuses to be anymore on-the-nose than that, weaving referential imagery into his film instead of jamming allusions down our throats with his plot.
And Hanna, for all of her competence in the fields of efficient killing and brutal violence, is very much an innocent. She is the product of Erik’s paternal exertions and Wiegler’s mysterious crusade against both father and daughter. Choice has never really been given to her– in fact the only time she’s allowed to choose anything in her life with Erik comes in the beginning, when she literally kicks off the film’s plot with the push of a button. Is Erik invested in her making the opposite choice? It seems like it, but it’s the only instance where Hanna really has any agency in the direction of her life until the film’s last act. Capable as she is at ceasing heartbeats, she’s really just a kid– a kid being yanked around by two adults with their own agendas.
There’s a through-line here about nurture and parenting, with Erik and Wiegler acting as two sides of the same coin as they vie for custody over Hanna’s fate. Ultimately, Hanna is about its protagonist having her eyes opened to a life completely alien to her own. On the run, her fate collides with that of a vacationing family comprised of Jason Flemyng, Olivia Williams, and Jessica Barden; Hanna’s experiences with them on the road at first confound her, representing interactions completely antithetical to the world Erik painted for her in their woodland isolation. How does someone taught from birth to adapt or die– verbatim in fact– react to a world where people are really just people and not everybody constitutes a danger to her?
Of course, Erik’s warnings aren’t totally paranoid, either. Plenty of people want to do Hanna harm; it just so happens that she’s more adept in that realm than her numerous assailants. Wright loads Hanna with subtext and layers it with emotional thematics, but he never loses sight of his film’s heritage and therefore keeps the pace brisk and the action sequences tight. Interestingly, Wright aims for an economy of action, taking great care in where and when he inserts fight scenes so as to ensure that each one occurs organically within the structure of the movie. He’s not portraying action for action’s sake, but to drive the narrative forward.
Frankly, there’s something truly exciting about watching someone with Wright’s artistic inclinations handle an action scene. Too often contemporary action films mistake shaky camerawork as a means to an end, hoping that chaotic photography will replace genuine tension in their moments of violence and choreography. Some filmmakers– like Paul Greengrass– know how to make that technique work to their advantage. Most favor letting it do the legwork for them, which rarely works. Wright, however, opts for crisp, steady cinematography over the broken and disrupted visual aesthetic of shaky-cam, yielding refreshingly cogent action beats and a fluid sense of movement in its pugilistic outbursts. For action aficionados and photography geeks, Hanna‘s long uninterrupted tracking shot leading into a subway battle between a slew of government goons and the stoic Bana easily should mark one of 2011’s best.
Hanna‘s a unique creature. Wright’s personal flourishes bestow the film with a singular identity in every strata, an absolute necessity when treading such familiar ground as this. By virtue of his efforts, Hanna stands apart from its roots and only family resemblance can really be claimed in any discussion of its origins; Hanna may be another film about a lost assassin being pursued across the globe, but through a potent cocktail of folkloric enchantment and action poetry, it ends up being much more than the sum of its parts.