A literate, exciting action movie that’s drop-dead gorgeous
Hanna/2011/Focus Features/111 min.
By Michael Wilmington
“Hanna” is “Kick-Ass” and “The Bourne Identity” filtered through “Pride and Prejudice” and “Atonement.” And I don’t mean that as a knock.
Director Joe Wright, who made the 2005 Keira Knightley version of Jane Austen’s best-loved novel and the lauded film of Ian McEwan’s grim tale “Atonement,” is a director with a style both flashy and sumptuous.
And in “Hanna,” he’s demonstrating something we might not have expected from him: burn-down-the-house action-movie skills. The movie — starring Saoirse Ronan (the jealous little girl from “Atonement”) as the kick-ass title heroine Hanna, Eric Bana as her action-mentor dad Erik, and Cate Blanchett as Marissa, the vicious C.I.A. agent villainess — is such a departure from what Wright has done before that it’s hard not to be impressed.
Wright starts the film with a snowy deer hunt and kill in the wilds of Finland, where the gifted 16-year-old Hanna, trained in all manner of martial arts and assassin skills, brings down a stag and muses philosophically. The story moves with dizzying speed to the Moroccan desert, Hamburg and Berlin, escalating into spectacular brawls, subway battles and bloody showdowns.
It’s quite a ride. The whole movie is a long three-sided chase: Hanna is captured early on by Marissa when Erik leaves her on her own, after arranging to rendezvous with her later in Berlin. Then Hanna escapes and Marissa pursues both her and Erik. The fights are all set-pieces and Wright shoots one of them in a virtuosic unbroken Steadicam take, which reminds you of the spectacular tracking shot on Dunkirk Beach in “Atonement.”
The three lead actors — along with Tom Hollander as the perverse villain Isaacs, Olivia Williams, Jason Flemyng and Jessica Barden as the British family Hanna meets in the desert — have the kind of acting chops you don’t usually see in movies like this, and they display them as much as Seth Lochhead and David Farr’s script lets them.
All the characters, in fact, have more fullness and surprises than the action-movie norm. They’re reminiscent at times of the psychologically detailed or richly eccentric characters in an old-style British thriller by Alfred Hitchcock.
We haven’t had many really literate thrillers lately (The “Bourne” movies excepted), and it’s a pleasure to see one here, to see filmmakers who are trying to please us on a multitude of levels and not just trying to blow us out of our seats.
The results are drop-dead gorgeous and exciting, but not completely satisfying. What we’d expect from Wright — memorable characters and high-style high drama — are here, but not emphasized as much as the story sometimes needs in order to make total sense.
The action scenes are scorchers, and they’re shot beautifully by cinematographer Alwin Kuchler on stunning sites and sets by designer Sarah Greenwood. (Her interrogation chamber below the Moroccan desert is an homage to Ken Adam’s great War Room set in “Dr. Strangelove.”) But I thought they became a little too set-piecey at times, took over the show a little too much.
Ronan has a talent for bewitching the camera and for suggesting levels of thought, memory and passion beneath the surface. Ronan is kind of strong and silent here, which deepens the film’s mysteries, including any nagging questions we might have about the relationship among Hanna, Marissa and Erik.
That ability to hold the screen with quietude is just as important as the ability to make your lines sound spontaneous, real and meaningful. Ronan seems to have it all instinctively. Just as Blanchett does. I wouldn’t call this one of Blanchett’s best roles, but any opportunity to see her act is a treat to relish, even if her villainy is slightly upstaged by Hollander.
Wright definitely hit the brass bell here. Now I’d like to see him do something ambitious and novelistic again, but more epic. Maybe something by Dickens or Thackeray or Eliot, or something more modern. And with roles for people and artists like Blanchett, Ronan and Hollander.
Author photo by Victor Skrebneski; copyright Victor Skrebneski. “Hanna” images from Focus Features.