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Moving ever further away from the high-lit reputability of Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, director Joe Wright seems hellbent on proving he’s a high-powered action stylist in Hanna. This sort of reverse-image, quasi-intellectual cousin to Luc Besson’s The Professional stars the exceptional Saoirse Ronan as the daughter of a CIA op, raised to be the perfect soldier spy, who’s unexpectedly forced to cope with a world she doesn’t know and a lethal female adversary from her father’s past. At once enticing and a bit dubious, this arty thriller looks to ride its sterling cast and unusual kicks to decent midrange box office.
One spends a fair amount of time during Hanna wondering if the title character is actually the daughter of the determined CIA agent Marissa, played by Cate Blanchett, who pursues the girl all over Germany. Whatever the outcome of that puzzlement may be, there’s little question that Ronan could eventually inherit Blanchett’s mantle, so strikingly similar are their looks and excess of talent.
With these two women as the heart of the film, one can scarcely go far wrong. But while there’s always a lot going on, and none of it uninteresting or dull, pervading the enterprise is the distinct feeling that Wright is trying to prove something — that he’s a real filmmaker and not just a literary transcriber, that style may not just enrich but trump substance, that perhaps a genre film is only really worth doing if it’s piled with loftier ideas. There was a measure of this going on in his last film, The Soloist, but that was misguided in nearly every way, whereas here, the elemental part of the mission, at least, is clear-cut.
Raised in the frigid forests of Finland, where she’s taught by her macho dad Erik (Eric Bana) to hunt reindeer with a bow and arrow (accomplished vividly in the opening scene), speak several languages, memorize the encyclopedia and match her old man in self-defense skills, Hanna, at 16, has reached the point of self-sufficiency where, like an animal, she’s kicked out of the nest.
But before her appointed reunion with Dad in Berlin, Hanna is abducted on the orders of Marissa, a fastidious pro with a special personal interest in the girl. “Did she turn out as you’d hoped?” inquires Marissa’s murderously blase henchman Isaacs (Wright regular Tom Hollander in a fabulously offbeat turn). “Better,” she replies. Ruthless is Marissa’s second name, but when she wants to make nice, she slips into what one takes to be her native Texas accent, the better to charm, cajole and wheedle what she wants out of people.
Once Hanna escapes — literally from a hole beneath the sands of Morocco — the film shifts into a different gear for a while as she is taken up by a family of slightly daft vacationing Brits. Hanna has supposedly met very few, if any, people before — certainly not a girl her own age — and knew no mother, so interest suddenly alights on how she observes and reacts to the family mom (Olivia Williams), whose mindset remains that of a rather confused and politically correct college student, and daughter (Jessica Barden of Tamara Drewe), a glib young thing obsessed with pop girl culture. In Spain, they allow a couple of biker boys to pick them up, but Hanna doesn’t have a clue.
If some early scenes seem rather overeager to impress, Wright is just warming up. Two later set-pieces, in fact, are striking in conception and execution: A long one-take fight sequence in which Erik is followed from street level down into an underground station foyer and is forced to take on four men makes you not want to even blink, while a nocturnal chase amid and across giant shipping containers is a very impressive piece of geometric choreography.
As the yarn written by story creator Seth Lockhead and David Farr comes to a head, it’s clear that not only will the matter of Hanna’s origins need to be addressed, but the fairy tale motifs strewn through the film will have to pay off, which they do in a climactic hide-and-seek game played out in a decaying amusement park, actually shot at the defunct Spree Park in eastern Berlin, where Marissa is not implausibly equated with the Big Bad Wolf.
Not since Run Lola Run has a young lady been required to do as much running as Hanna does here, and in Germany no less. This Ronan does with the same absolute focus she brings to every other aspect of this demanding role, as she expresses intelligence, mental and physical resourcefulness, a bright-eyed curiosity about everything she’s seeing in the world for the first time, and an abiding aloneness. Thickly made up, immaculately accoutred and coiffed with not a hair out of place, Blanchett’s Marissa is every inch a woman who has willed herself to become the person she now is, in control of herself and her domain, but missing something inside. Bana fills the bill as a man destined to remain elusive in every way save for his dedication to Hanna.
The compositions devised with Wright by cinematographer Alwin Kuchler are dense and luminous, packed with information and insistent upon what the spectator is and is not meant to notice. But this is suggestive of how the overall enterprise, for all its intrigue and visceral impact, feels overly thought out, affected and forced in its stylization. Wright has got plenty of moves, but they seem applied rather than organic, noticeable in their own right rather than an inevitable part of the overall fabric. When you’ve got Ronan and Blanchett, not to mention Bana, Hollander and Williams, among others, you don’t have to play every card you hold.
The unusual score by the Chemical Brothers is arresting but similarly attention-getting for its own sake.
Opens: April 8 (Focus)
Production: Holleran Company Prods., a Sechzehnte Babelsberg Film/Neunte Babelsberg Film coproduction.
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett, Tom Hollander, Olivia Williams, Jason Flemyng
Director: Joe Wright
Screenwriters: Seth Lochhead, David Farr, story by Seth Lochhead
Producers: Leslie Holleran, Marty Adelstein, Scott Nemes
Executive producer: Barbara A. Hall
Director of photography: Alwin Kuchler
Production designer: Sarah Greenwood
Costume designer: Lucie Bates
Editor: Paul Tothill
Music: The Chemical Brothers
Rated PG-13, 110 minutes
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