Monday, April 11, 2011

Hanna (Joe Wright, 2011)

I have to confess that I haven't seen director Joe Wright's other films. I have it on good authority that Atonement was a fine film, and worth seeing, but neither Pride and Prejudice or The Soloist are at all attractive to me as ways to spend two hours. Now that I've seen Hanna, the possibility of me sitting down to watch more of Wright's work has been multiplied by an exponent of about forty.

I was trying not to expect much from Hanna. The trailer suggested the film could either be a tired action film, attempting to throw a bone to an older audience by mixing in some aspects of the old school spy thriller or that it could be something fun, and a little bit different. I'm extremely happy to report that it ended up being the latter, instead of the former.

It's the story of a young girl (Saoirse Ronan, a name I wish I could figure out exactly how to pronounce) who has been raised in a sub Antarctic forest wilderness by her father (Eric Bana) who has spent his entire life training her for the day she would return to civilization, because a high ranking C.I.A officer (Cate Blanchett) wants her dead. I'm not giving anything away that the trailers don't, so don't worry. The fun of the film is figuring out why the C.I.A agent wants this young girl dead, how the girl succeeds in staying alive, and in how she begins to navigate the "civilized world."

Cate Blanchett, Saoirse Ronan, Eric Bana and Tom Hollander (who is great in his role, though the only gay film stereotype older than the "hilarious gay friend"stereotype is the "psychopathic gay hit man") all give excellent performances. It's unusual to come away from a film and feel there could be entire films dedicated to any one of the characters, and that they could on their own being of equal quality, independent of the original film they appeared in. I'd actually be interested in seeing a film that focused on any of these actors playing the characters they have here. Even as Tom Hollander's role is relatively small in comparison to the others, and a tired old stereotype, he brings an energy and sense of unpredictability to it that I enjoyed. Cate Blanchett, Eric Bana and Saoirse Ronan manage to ground their characters in a sense of reality by giving them all moments that wouldn't fit in a film more typical of the spy/action genre. Cate Blanchett seems to savor the opportunity to play a powerful villain and she is to give the sense that her character is doing what she is for both professional and personal reasons, while never becoming the kind of shrill, shrewish female antagonist lesser, lazier films lean on. Eric Bana is one of those unfortunate actors who has a well of talent to draw from, but has chosen some really bad films in the past, and as a result his star hasn't risen quite as high as it probably could. He's able to play a pragmatic, practical, but still warm and somewhat sentimental father with real grace and vulnerability, which though it would seem counter intuitive, adds to just how dangerous the audience believes his character can be to the films antagonists. There's more to it than the idea that since he has raised and trained Hanna, who is a bad ass, so by the time the film concludes, it's clear that he's the only one who really understood the stakes involved.

Saoirse Ronan is fantastic. She is able to completely sell the confidence, competence and ability she's developed to live in a harsh wilderness without a hint of doubt. Out in the woods, she's an almost preternaturally self possessed young girl, chomping at the bit to have some independence from the disciplined regime her life has been. When that time comes, and she's then set loose into a world full of other people and the "mod con's" of the world, she's equally believable in being bewildered, dumbstruck and socially awkward. One of the things that sets Hanna apart from other films of it's kind is that it embraces the fact that it is not just an action film, but also a coming of age tale, and it makes some interesting connections back to the fairy tales which are the narrative forefathers to films like it. Ronan deftly manages to convey all of that in her performance, and be the believable, sympathetic center of the film, while also being completely believable as a well honed killing machine.

The thing about the narrative which is most interesting to me is that Hanna seems to have been constructed as a coming of age fairy tale first and foremost, and an action movie second. By having this much of a focus on character, primarily through Hanna's relationship to the other characters and the world she inhabits, it succeeds where two of the much talked about and hated actions films of late (Sucker Punch and Battle: Los Angeles) fail. The action in the film is an integral part of the story, and does actually further not just the plot, but also presents the moments or reasoning for moments of particular growth in Hanna's character as well. They're not just thrilling, well choreographed and shot action sequences, they also relate directly back to the whole reason the film exists, to follow this young girl on this journey. Where Battle: Los Angeles failed every single time the action stopped and the script had to take over, Hanna has some strong character moments that are endearing, funny, and at some points, kind of sad and disturbing. I also think in many ways it succeeds in being the kind of empowering film Sucker Punch wanted to be. It succeeds because it is relatively simple and straight forward, actually focusing on the characters by making the action related specifically to their motives very directly. Where Sucker Punch seemed to be lost and muddled by it's own grand ambitions, Hanna presents a compelling story of a young girl, trying to find her own identity, realizing the man who made her who she is in the beginning of the film isn't a perfect man, and at the same time that he actually did do everything he could to prepare her for what her life was going to be. The way the film mixes that metaphor of the coming of age tale into it's narrative, while also referring to it very directly sometimes, is more adeptly and deftly handled than most action films ever consider, much less actually even attempt. There are also some great references to The Brothers Grimm throughout the film, in both the script and some unexpectedly beautiful set design. These help to distinguish Hanna from so many of the other films that attempt to traverse the similar territory, because those fairy tales were in many ways, very much what this story was in earlier times and what the many like it are today. In this case, Cate Blanchett is the Big Bad Wolf, but the Woodsman isn't coming to save our central child character, she has to save herself. And, even if she had left a trail of breadcrumbs, this Gretel wouldn't want to go back to where she came from anyway. The thing that does come directly from those old fairy tales is the lesson of the journey, beginning with the parent who is less than perfect (though he doesn't toss his child in favor of his new wife, which was so often the case in those old fairy tales). 

Technically, it's superb. While it's closest relative in a narrative sense is probably the Bourne films, Hanna has a visual style that almost couldn't be more different. Where the frenetic camera work and fast pace worked perfectly for The Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum films, this is a much more patient film, letting almost every scene play out in full frame, but at the same time is never inducing boredom. Presenting the action in steady cam, dolly shots, and fixed frame actually helps to build tension and suspense. It's an action film, with a classical visual vocabulary, creating beautifully framed and composed shots even in the midst of the action. There is one sequence that is much more stylized than the rest of the film, and at the time, I almost thought it seemed out of place, but as the film progressed, and then in thinking about it afterwards, it isn't at all out of place, so much as it is a visual representation of the setting and the element of the story it's depicting. It's the only piece of the film during which there was a definite sense of a directors hand, and it's visually stimulating, interesting and something different than what we've seen in the many other scenes which depict something very similar. To that end, Hanna manages to be a really engaging action film on the technical level, with an ever so slight touch of art house flair that works incredibly well. Joe Wright has presented a piece of work which is disciplined and entertaining in all of the right ways and all of the right places, while also being visually appealing and cinematic in the more positive connotations of the word.

The score for the film is drop dead, knock out fun. The Chemical Brothers were among the electronic artists to rise to the top of crop in nineties, and they've reemerged with the score for Hanna proving they aren't relics from a lost time. Their music adds an entire dimension to the film can't be understated by rounding out and complimenting all of the areas the film works well. It's not just background, adding a sense of atmosphere, but it doesn't overpower the visual presentation or the character aspects of the film. It's almost it's own character in the film, because it's never a cloying, pandering piece of scoring that seems to be trying to give the audience emotional directions. It's reminiscent of their other work, while also seeming to be tailored specifically for the film. It works for many of the same reasons Trent Reznor's score for The Social Network was successful, and it's also extremely listenable as it's own creation.

I doubt that Hanna will be the best film I'll see all year, but I don't doubt that it is going to be one of top ten or fifteen films of the year, and possibly the best film with as heavy an emphasis on action. I can definitely suggest this film to anyone. I wouldn't be shocked if there were some folks for whom it is not "exciting" enough and that can't get on board with the idea of a petite fourteen year old girl being a bad ass, dropping C.I.A thugs like a Charlie Sheen sitcom no matter the explanation the story provides, but I would be shocked if many folks who would feel that way about this film are my regular readers. I would also suggest checking Hanna out in theaters for a few reasons. First, it is visually interesting enough that a even a big screen T.V. isn't quite going to cut it (especially that more stylized scene toward the middle). Second, the score deserves to be heard properly, thumping and jerking very loudly. Last, supporting films like Hanna in the theaters and helping to make them profitable suggests to the studios that there is an audience for films like this. I have no doubt there is an audience for this, probably a relatively large one, whether or not they show up to the theaters is the question.

I'll say one last thing about Hanna, I very rarely walk away from a film and feel I would really like to see a sequel. I walked away from Hanna feeling that way because I think the way her character was handled and portrayed, both in the script and by Saoirse Ronan, leave the opening for a film surrounding exactly what becomes of her following this ending that could be equally as good. Because she's spent her entire life living in a forest wilderness, there could be a really interesting story in how this girl makes her way into society, at fourteen years old, without the benefit of a guiding force, but with an extremely interesting set of capabilities and talents.

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