Review: Saoirse Ronan takes down Cate Blanchett with style in ‘Hanna’

I would not say I am the biggest Joe Wright fan in the world.

When his “Pride and Prejudice” came out, there were many critics who flipped out immediately for his work, and while I think it’s a very well-made version of the story, telling that particular story again didn’t do much for me.  I felt more strongly about “Atonement,” which I like quite a bit, and that film certainly suggested someone with some very strong visual ideas and technical acumen.  “The Soloist”… well, I’m curious if even Wright would defend that film.  I find it intolerable, naked Oscar bait that rings false in every frame.

And to be honest, the descriptions of “Hanna” had me worried that we were going to cover some overly familiar ground in terms of story.  Just last year, I thought the Hit Girl/Big Daddy story in “Kick-Ass” pretty much nailed the father-daughter dynamic in this type of story, and other elements of the story seemed to be similar to films like “Salt”.  Even though the script was on the Black List, I never read it, and I kind of paid little attention to the movie during production.

I’m happy to say that Wright is on his game again in this one, and he’s made a really strange, lovely little arthouse action movie that delivers an emotional kick and some strong visceral thrills.  It is surreal at times, surprisingly small-scale, and it works primarily because of the combination of Wright’s meticulous film sense and some wonderful, nuanced work from actors playing fairly broad and thinly-written roles.

And did I mention that the score by the Chemical Brothers is sick?  Because it is.  Completely and utterly sick.  And I love it.

The film opens with Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) in the woods, hunting a deer.  She’s practically an animal herself, raised by her father Erik (Eric Bana) to be dangerous and completely self-sufficient.  She’s 16, and from her appearance and her demeanor, it seems she’s never known any life other than the total isolation she and her father enjoy in their home in the middle of a frozen wasteland, as far from civilization as Erik could manage.

She’s reached an age, though, where she is “ready.”  Ready for what?  Well, Erik has to dig up a device that he brings back to their cabin and he warns Hanna that if she activates it, someone will come for her, someone who will not rest until Hanna is dead, or until Hanna kills whoever it is.  He leaves that decision up to Hanna, and it doesn’t take long for Hanna to throw the switch.  She wants the fight.  She wants to kill whoever it is.

And halfway around the world, Marissa (Cate Blanchett), an agent with one of the many shadowy U.S. intelligence agencies, sees that homing beacon come on, and she begins to track down Hanna and Erik, determined to erase the both of them from the planet altogether.

There’s not much else to the story.  The rest of the film is just an elaborate cat-and-mouse as Hanna and her father are separated, each of them looking for Marissa, both of them driven by events of the past, both of them barely alive.  They’re not people… they are agendas wrapped in skin, and Marissa is the exact same way.  This is what happens when your whole life is about revenge… you end up hollow, not quite real.  Hanna is a scary little machine at times, but when she’s just a little girl, she seems much younger than her actual age because of how sheltered she’s been.  At one point, she ends up hitching a ride with a tourist girl named Sophie (Jessica Barden, who was so funny in last year’s “Tamara Drewe”) and her family, including Olivia Williams and Jason Flemyng as her mother and father, and for a few fleeting moments, Hanna samples a normal life.

But she’s not normal, and because of how she’s been raised, she’s barely fit to be around other people.  She is prone to extreme violence and she’s very good at it, too.  The fights in the film are shot with a great sense of geography and purpose, and the action is, for the most part, impressively staged.  Alwin Kuchler, the cinematographer of the film, is one of my favorite guys working, and when he’s on his game, he is exquisite.  He and Wright don’t just make pretty pictures here… they create a dream landscape that Hanna wanders, determined to get her hands on Marissa, determined to avenge her mother, determined to figure out exactly who or what she really is.  It’s a sad movie in many ways, and Hanna isn’t presented as a simple power fantasy, an unstoppable superhero.  She’s very human, very vulnerable, and the thing that makes her dangerous isn’t some absurd physics-defying strength… it’s simple determination.  She wants to hurt Marissa.  She has spent her life with this one idea, and it has hollowed her out to make room for all the hate she’ll need to keep moving forward no matter what.

Blanchett and Bana are both very good in the film.  Blanchett is one of those actors who I love because they always make big choices.  She’s got a crazy American accent in this one, and she’s playing a barely-in-control freak of an agent, someone wound so tight you wonder how they don’t drop dead of stress every second of every day.  She knows she deserves whatever Erik and Hanna dish out, but that doesn’t change her own determination to stay alive.  Late in the film, Tom Hollander (recognized most from his role in the “Pirates Of The Caribbean” sequels) shows up as the head of a very strange hit squad sent to bring Hanna down, and he’s got this tune he keeps whistling, a tune that’s been worked into the score by the Chemical Brothers, and if you can walk out of the theater without it stuck in your head, you are stronger than I am.  The entire score by the Chemical Brothers is impressive, and I love that it doesn’t even show up until after Hanna has already made her way to civilization.  The whole first act of the film is quiet, and it’s only once Hanna has been introduced to music herself that score begins to play a part in the film.  I hope this is a first score for Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons, and that they can find time to work in movies between albums.  They give the film an original musical voice, and it compliments the action that is so well-shot by Wright perfectly.

“Hanna” is, in many ways, a slight film, but it is so effective and so spare in the way it accomplishes its goals, that I walked away impressed.  Wright creates indelible images throughout, and he’s not afraid to play rough with both his characters and the audience.  The result is a movie that may navigate familiar waters, but in a way that feels original.  It’s one of the best things I’ve seen in a theater so far this year, and it makes me feel like Wright is one of those guys I won’t love every time he directs, but when he makes one I connect with, it’ll be intense.

“Hanna” opens in theaters everywhere April 8, 2011.