In the wake of the dismal, thoroughly chauvinistic takes on female empowerment seen in Kick-Ass and Sucker Punch, along comes Joe Wright to save us. He does not try to pass off the idea of a young woman given a homeschooling from hell as some sort of joke (except perhaps on a cosmic level), nor does he present the violence as something cool. After a certain point, it's difficult even to chuckle uncomfortably at Hanna's bloodbaths, and Wright manages to keep his PG-13 rating by hiding most of the red stuff through cutaways to the horrified faces of spectators to this teenager's rampage.
I've not been the world's biggest Wright fan in the past, always feeling that he chose serious topics or literature to adapt and then made it all about him and his (admittedly considerable) camerawork. Here, divested of the need to honor a book or a person's life, he lets his style float freely, and the ride is wild indeed. Hanna strikes me at once as both continuation and antidote to last year's The American: like that film, Wright's movie messes with staid genre conventions of the trained killer. Unlike The American, this movie is balls-to-the-wall frenzy. And yet, a hand guides this ship through the maelstrom, and even when Wright's style dips into shaky cam and music video editing, he puts enough spin on these tropes to break them free from cliché's gravity.
For all the visual tricks Wright employs, the most prominent aspect in Hanna is the sound design. The titular protagonist (Saoirse Ronan), a young girl secreted away by her father (Eric Bana) to a remote Arctic forest and trained in various methods of killing, knows how to study each situation, and the initial enhancement of the sound effects reflects her alert senses. Later, when she joins the real world to help in her father's convoluted scheme for revenge against the CIA, Wright employs the same heightened sound levels to communicate how bewildered she is by everyday items like electricity. Tellingly, even an Arabic hotel with flickering fluorescent lights and a crap TV that only gets a handful of channels scares her as if she were just thawed from a glacier after thousands of years.
Through these clever touches, Wright manages to convey a surprising depth in a girl with limited personality as a result of her sheltered, focused upbringing. She can look at a gun pointed at her and feel no fear, but when confronted with technology she did not know existed or a human being who can think about something else besides killing and torture. The scars her trainer left on her can be seen better in these moments than the somewhat on-the-nose verbalization of the same hangups late in the film.
Assigning all the credit to Wright, however, would ignore the astonishing lead performance given by Ronan, who worked with the director on Atonement, where she was the best and worst thing about the movie because she so perfectly captured Briony that I had to look away in seething hatred whenever she was on-screen. Ronan, now 16 (well, 17 today -- happy birthday, Saoirse!), is now taller and lankier, as if someone took her frame and simply stretched it out. Yet you can see the strength in her body; like De Niro in Taxi Driver, she may be small, but she's wiry, all unbreakable tendons waiting to release pent-up energy on the first person to underestimate her.
In her cold blue eyes is both tenderness and fury. Details leaks every so often about what makes Hanna "special," but the look her in eyes suggests the nurture argument over nature. The British family that takes Hanna in is disarmed by her; she's naïve and those wide blue eyes counter all of her talk of independence and her stated desire to be alone to avoid trouble. People tend to trust someone with blue eyes (trust me), but one would do well to remember that the blue part of a flame is always the hottest, and when Ronan's eyes narrow you know something bad is about to happen.
Also getting the chance to be fiendishly wicked and unexpectedly unsettling is Cate Blanchett. After suffering through her thankless role in Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, a part defined entirely by a wig and bad accent, Blanchett finally gets to stretch her sinister muscles as CIA agent Marissa Wiegler, who plays like a mashup of Condi Rice, Hillary Clinton and Bush himself. With her high cheekbones and soft lips, Blanchett normally looks like the most villainous thing she could do would be to scheme her way through a Victorian party, but here she displays a remarkable ability for facial control. Blanchett subtly pulls back her lips in a permanent sneer, tightening her face and accentuating her most prominent facial features in an inexplicably garish light. She sets her lip quivering so well it looks involuntary, and her occasional losses of self-control suggest a connection with Eric and Hanna that runs deeper than the story we're given.
Like the best stylish thrillers, Hanna features such seemingly throwaway moments to offer tantalizing teases of unspoken quirks and traits. Marissa caries around a dentist's arsenal of tooth-cleaning tools with her, and in a close-up we see her brushing so vigorously that her gums bleed. The British parents (Jason Flemyng and Olivia Williams) who let Hanna tag along with their children manage to be both uptight and New Age, and all their overbearing fretting over the proper way to raise children who clearly aren't better off for the attention gives way to a shot of their campy rigorously rocking as they do what couples do on vacation.
And then, there's the action. Wright employs both shaky cam and music video editing at times, but Wright appears to be venting his excess skill on a lark; Hanna ranks with After Hours as one of the great modern examples of a supremely talented filmmaker just having fun. Warped angles, funhouse-mirror matching cuts, replays, shifting color patterns and a few setpieces that border on the Expressionist combine into an orgy of flair, all of it propelled by alternating blast of silence and a wonderful score by the Chemical Brothers. Not as masterful as last year's big electronic winner, the Social Network soundtrack, the Chemical Brothers' soundscapes are nevertheless a delight and fit perfectly with the movie. It may be a cliché at this point to lay electronica over action thrillers (it seems that everything about the Bourne series has been pillaged), but like all the other tropes at play here, the score seems to be both in jest and a fresh take on old material.
Wright's sense of playfulness extends to his treatment of Hanna's warped innocence. She may be completely removed from scandalous pop culture like a good homeschooled kid, but compared to the yuppie tourists who befriend her, the uselessness of today's Western cultural perspective is obvious. Hanna's own naïveté about human communication contrasts with the family's blindness to the world's horrors: she tells them that her mother died, and when the British woman softly asks how the woman passed, Hanna says, without hesitation, "Three bullets." Having never actually been places, Hanna can only relate statistical information about objects, actions or geographic locations as if a talking encyclopedia. And yet, while the Brits walk around Morocco talking big about absorbing culture and being "grounded" by the simpler parts of the world, it is Hanna who can converse with a hotelier in Arabic.
For the advantages she enjoys, however, Hanna has no idea how to interact with them, and the best she can hope for is a sliver of friendship before bad guys show up to suck her back into the underworld. Hanna may lose a bit of momentum near the end when Wright lets some of the air of the balloon, but he wins points for not reveling in the kill. Whether Hanna completes the mission her father programmed into her or not, she'll still be left in a world she does not comprehend, unfit to do anything but keep running and killing. Wright has the decency to hang a bit of a pall over the film because of this, and as exhilarating as the film can be, it stands out because of those flecks of humanity.