Joe Wright is one of the most interesting directors to have emerged on the scene this past decade. Pride and Prejudice was a surprisingly fresh film that injected a newfound energy into a genre that is normally quite stuffy and rigid. Atonement was one of my favorite films of the entire decade, and while The Soloist was a good-but-forgettable misstep, his two previous movies more than proved his worth as a directorial force to be reckoned with. When I heard that his fourth film was going to be an action-packed thriller starring a teenage assassin, suffice it to say that I was intrigued. I had always thought it interesting that such a young director was making such excellent period dramas, but now that I had become accustomed to that style, it was odd to see Wright revert back to a more traditional film genre for directors his age. Suffice it to say that fans of Wright will not be disappointed by this film; nor will fans of the action genre. In fact, Hanna manages to attain the rare achievement of being an artsy action film – a film that delivers both on the emotional and on the stylistic level.
I got to see the film in a special advance screening at my school, and we were even treated to a brief but wonderful introduction to the film by Joe Wright himself. He presented the film as a “modern-day fairy tale,” and watching the film, it becomes clear very early on that this is precisely what it is. Wright sets up fairy tale and Brothers Grimm references in the opening sequences of the film and peppered all throughout, and it quickly becomes apparent that this film is actually a truly fascinating modern twist on the classic coming of age/loss of innocence fairy tales such as Hansel and Gretel or Little Red Riding Hood. Despite being a highly skilled, expertly trained and ruthlessly proficient assassin, Hanna is actually an extremely naïve and innocent character. Throughout the course of the film, as she is sent out into the real world for the first time in her life, her innocence is broken, and she discovers both the wonders of life – music, friendship emotion – but also the true darkness and evil that lies beneath, from which she had been shielded all her life by her father Eric, who raised and trained her in the barren Siberian wilderness. It is a fascinating depiction of a naïve and innocent character discovering the wonders of the world for the first time, in the vein of classic films such as Being There or The Man Who Fell to Earth, except this time, the character is also a ruthless and extremely competent killer.
This type of narrative hinges on the performances and on the ability of its lead actress to convincingly display true wonder at the discovery of things that most people take for granted but she is only experiencing for the first time. Saoirse Ronan completely sells the part, and then some. I had no doubts about her incredible acting skills up until this point, but her startlingly genuine and brilliant lead performance proves once and for all that she is hands down the best actress of her very young generation. It is an incredible performance that few adult actors can pull off convincingly, much less child actors. And she does a simply incredible job, not only of truly tapping into the emotional core of the character, but also performing incredibly complex and brilliantly executed choreographed fight scenes and weapons handling. Ronan proves that not only is she an incredible actress, but that she is also quite a trouper when it comes to stunts and fight scenes. The rest of the cast all do an excellent job as well, with Eric Bana, Olivia Williams, Jason Flemyng and Tom Hollander all delivering great performances. But the true stand-out of the supporting cast is without a doubt the delectable Cate Blanchett, who always finds something interesting about her characters to tap into, and whose portrayal of the villainous antagonist Marissa is deliciously sinister but also quite vulnerable and beautifully self-destructive, in a way. It’s always fun to see great thespians try new things, and like Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, Blanchett clearly relishes the opportunity to play a villain.
The great characters, strong emotional core and interesting story are part of what makes Hanna great. But in addition to all that, it is actually just a really good action film. In fact, it is probably the best action film I have seen in the past few years. Watching the film, it’s incredible to think that this was Joe Wright’s first time directing action scenes; he is clearly more adept at it than most directors passing as “action directors” today. By avoiding shaky-cam and rapid-fire editing and instead resorting to long takes and keeping the camera distant, Wright allows his actors to really show off their skills and truly let the brilliant martial arts choreography shine. One particular sequence in the middle of the film, which is shot in one extremely long, continuous take in the vain of the infamous Dunkirk beach scene in Atonement and featuring a brilliant fight scene with Eric Bana truly has to be seen to be believed. At the end of the day, despite her naïveté and emotional vulnerability, Hanna is an absolute badass and it is absolutely thrilling to see her kicking ass and taking names like there’s no tomorrow. And as I mentioned earlier, Ronan performs these sequences with such incredible skill, it is absolutely unbelievable to think that she is not yet 17 years old and has never had any martial arts training prior to acting in this film.
I can’t fully review this film without mentioning one of its most prominent, noticeable and memorable aspects: the original score by The Chemical Brothers. It seems like it is becoming something of a trend lately to hire successful electronic bands to score feature films – last year, the studios courted Trent Reznor (The Social Network) and Daft Punk (Tron: Legacy), and between them they delivered two of the best original scores of the year. Now, The Chemical Brothers come along, and in terms of electronic music at least, put the aforementioned acts to shame. Their score for Hanna is relentless; fast-paced, blood pumping, and completely electronic, it rivals and possibly even tops their best album work throughout their long, illustrious career. It’s simply that good – if you don’t like electronic, dance or house music, this score might be a major turn off. But as a fan of that kind of music, I thought it was absolutely incredible, not to mention perfectly fitting to the style and tone of the film.
Joe Wright has managed to create something truly unique with Hanna: an artsy, thinking man’s action film that delivers completely on both the emotional and the action scale. It’s not a perfect film – some of the side characters are a little thinly drawn, and a lot of people might be turned off by the film’s shifting tones, teetering on the line of seriousness and over-the-top exaggeration. However, if one embraces the fairy tale nature of the film, its over-the-top nature becomes an organic part of the film’s style. I can only hope that the public will respond, go see it, and enjoy the film for what it is. It has something for everyone.