DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Hanna

Thursday 9 June 2011


Hanna (2011) dir. Joe Wright
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett, Tom Hollander, Olivia Williams, Jason Flemyng, Jessica Barden, Martin Wuttke


By Greg Klymkiw

Hanna is a mess – a glorious, wonderful, thrilling, moving and unforgettable mess. I should have hated this movie on a number of fronts. It’s directed by one of my least favourite filmmakers (Joe Wright – he of the wretched Atonement), features one of my least favourite stars (Cate “Miss Mannered” Blanchett), has more holes in the plot than the moon has craters, drops the ball occasionally on set pieces that begin promisingly but are all rise and no finish (save for one) and among other potentially annoying traits, is fraught with dollops of one of my least favourite elements – the dreaded whimsy of MAGIC REALISM!

To be frank, the movie had “Ugh!” written all over it.

However, in spite of the aforementioned, I loved this movie – adored it! Almost immediately after seeing it, I couldn’t get the movie out of my head – replaying scenes, images and bits of dialogue endlessly. I also couldn’t get the damned brilliant Chemical Brothers score out of my system.

I needed to see it again, but like Aronofsky’s Black Swan I was infused with trepidation – fearing a second helping would taint or eradicate the visceral transcendence of the first viewing. Aronofsky’s Repulsion-Red-Shoes fusion was endowed with everything I love about movies and happily held up on several viewings. The real fear of seeing Hanna again was the reality that, unlike the near-flawless Black Swan, the flaws pockmarking Hanna were, upon the inaugural helping, pretty substantial. Because of this, my passion for Wright's picture on a sophomore screening could have been so easily dashed upon the rocks.

The screenplay by Seth Lochheed and David Farr is generally fine – certainly in terms of its ambition, originality and clear opportunities for great visual storytelling. As the movie is based on Lochheeds’s original screen story and affixed to the visually gifted but often boneheaded director Wright (his interest in narrative clarity is often lacking), I suspect the ambition might have had some air let out of the balloon during the process of readying the script for screen and perhaps even during the shooting.

On a very positive front, I do love how the story feels like a few movies crammed into one – not in a messy way, but rather as a deliberate attempt to fuse several points of view and styles in order to wrench us into new directions just when things get familiar. This Grimm’s fairytale (with subtle and not-so-subtle signposts along the way), blended with a Bourne-like action film and road picture, is ultimately the story of a young girl who finds her way out of a forest and into other jungles (both the open road and the city) to do battle with an evil “witch” and be reunited with the father she loves.

The first third of the movie is an almost purely visual tale. In fact, it feels like a movie unto itself – movie number one, if you will. Sixteen-year-old Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) has been living with her on-the-lam-and-hiding-out survivalist-ex-CIA special operative father Erik (Eric Bana) in some Nordic forest just below the Arctic Circle. She has been trained by dad to fend for herself, live off the land and kill. He has home-schooled her in the traditional 3 R’s, history, philosophy and science, and taught her several languages, in which she is fluent.

The time eventually comes for Hanna to enter the world outside of the forest. She and dad agree to separate and meet again at a pre-determined point once she completes her mission to kill Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), a ruthlessly nasty CIA Bitch-goddess (the “witch”) who murdered Hanna’s mother and is desperate to find and kill Erik. Upon completing her mission (unbeknownst to her, she is not successful at all), Hanna escapes a covert underground spy facility in the deserts of Morocco (viciously dispatching several armed agents) and makes her way to the rendezvous point to meet her father. This, by the way, would be movie number two.

Along the way, in movie number three, the gears shift again. Hanna befriends Sophie (Jessica Barden), a young girl vacationing with her little brother Miles (Aldo Maland) and their hippie parents Rachel (Olivia Williams) and Sebastian (Jason Flemyng). Here, in this strangely functional family unit of Brits, she witnesses what a family could/should be. Alas, the idyll is fleeting.

In movie number four, Marissa – not dead as Hanna thinks – is in full pursuit. Assisted by Isaacs (Tom Hollander), a stylishly perverse hit-man and his two silent but deadly goons, mayhem becomes the order of the day. Hanna eventually makes her way to the secret rendezvous point – a long-closed children’s amusement park in Berlin, which is run by a kindly old friend of her father (nicknamed Mr. Grimm and stunningly played by Martin Wuttke, who was so terrific as Hitler in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds).

All bets are off in movie number five, as plans go awry and the movie explodes into a series of violent set pieces.

Hanna essentially has the five-act structure of a Shakespearean tragedy and plays itself out rather deftly on a number of thematic levels – most notably that of family and what constitutes a family. Is it blood? Understanding? Tolerance? Nurturing? Love? The movie also deals with issues such as retribution, redemption, innocence, longing and town vs. country. It is a movie that is as much about magic as it is about science, and especially how the two can be inextricably linked. It is a movie that explores the whole notion of nature versus nurture within the context of oddly functional relationships.

Damned if Hanna doesn’t almost have its cake and eat it too – and how close it comes to a kind of greatness one constantly seeks (often in vain) at the movies.

So how is it a mess? First of all, Joe Wright is a real enigma to me. I have not liked a single film he’s ever made – until this one. He has a knack for gorgeous visuals – not in some lame picture postcard fashion, but with an artist’s eye. His interest (or rather lack thereof) in story has often been utterly infuriating. With Hanna, and most often in retrospect - the picture moves like a bat out of hell - there are holes in the story you could drive a Mack truck through. Given how fine much of the writing is, I point the finger of blame – perhaps unfairly – at Wright. He’s proven before how little he dotes on story, so I feel completely justified in levelling my aim in his general vicinity. That said, there must have been something in the material hat inspired him to create compositions of extraordinary beauty, which more often than not tie directly into the emotion of the narrative. There are several scenes so heartbreakingly moving that one feels he "get's it".

While I don’t particularly feel like describing all the plot holes and speed bumps by rote, a few are probably worth mentioning.

When Hanna escapes from the underground CIA facility I was able to buy most of it, but when she burrows into a series of air tunnels with no obstacles, I found it extremely hard to swallow that this place was designed without having surveillance and/or heat sensor alarms throughout every single inch of it. While this allows Hanna a cool moment when she opens a manhole in the desert only to see several military vehicles blast over it, getting her there just felt lazy. The sequence would have benefited greatly if we weren’t thinking about this when it happens and from a basic screenwriting 101 standpoint, it surely would not have hurt matters to throw even more obstacles for our heroine to overcome.

And forgive me for being anal, but just what in the hell is this family of Brit hippies doing in the middle of the desert – especially in an area that would have been designed to keep intruders the fuck away. I mean, sure, they’re bloody Bohemians and all, but covert facilities are that way because they are truly in a no man’s land, but all around seem to be easily accessible roads and points of entry. Again, this is just lazy writing and/or direction here.

Another hole – rather deep by way of omission – is when the psycho hit-man and Bitch-goddess Blanchett have the Bohemians captured. We never get a sense that there is any real threat, as the needed information is derived so easily and worst of all, we never get a satisfactory conclusion to this story thread. Blanchett and her thugs have murdered anyone and everyone – no matter what degree to which they cooperated. Yet this is just dropped and the movie tear-asses forward. Are we to assume the family was murdered? Or were they let free? If the former, it relieves the story of another emotional level of suffering for poor Hanna. If the latter, the film would be guilty of utterly brick-headed plotting. As it is, we have no information either way and this hangs with us until the next set piece. Most good filmmakers know very well that you can’t have your audience scratching their heads over a point of logic when they should be following the story.

Then again, as previously stated, story seems to be of little concern to Wright.

One thing I admire greatly in the film is the many excellent action set pieces. Wright directs a lot of them like a true master.

Any use of close-ups or rapid-fire cutting is not there to mask the director’s incompetence with action (like, say, Christopher “One Idea” Nolan) and/or lack of any decent stunt choreography (most contemporary action movies), but rather because he is using the shots and cuts as genuine storytelling beats. As well, in these moments, his compositions are first-rate (not sloppy like the aforementioned Mr. Nolan’s) and we always have an excellent sense of geography (again, especially frightful in Mr. Nolan’s pathetic action attempts). Unfortunately, Wright often seems to run out of the necessary steam to adequately sustain and/or wrap up these otherwise first-rate sequences. Part of this might have to do with his lack of interest in the story and/or adherence to what I suspect might have been some superbly written visuals with both kinetic and narrative aims.

The best work from Wright is when he keeps the camera in wide or medium tableaux – cutting only when it is dramatically effective. The best action sequence is worthy of some of the very best. A sequence with Eric Bana and a bunch of CIA goons on a Berlin subway waiting area works perfectly in all respects. Here, Wright moves his camera, but not shaky-cam style, but with a swirling fluidity that captures all the necessary blows. It’s a genuinely great scene. It reminded me of those moments when Brian DePalma is working on all cylinders.

One thing the movie is blessed with is a whole mess of great performances. Saoirse Ronan is a stunner. It’s impossible to take one’s eyes off her face and her expressions are always delicate and subtle. Bana is great in the early bushy-faced survivalist sequence, though he seems a bit lost once he’s gussied up. That said, he acquits himself magnificently when he’s busting heads and/or firing a gun. Tom Hollander is a wonderful henchman. Fey, lip pursing, often deadpan and with great humour, he strikes a mighty malevolent pose. The aforementioned Martin Wuttke as the code-named Mr. Grimm does not have much screen time, but he makes the most of it. His character teeters on the border of whimsy, but thankfully he never allows himself to topple into the abyss of Jeunet-Land. The Brit Hippies and their kids all acquit themselves nicely – especially Olivia Williams as the mother. She’s warm and appealing in all the right ways.

The revelation for me was Cate Blanchett. I normally find it almost impossible to even look at her, but somehow, everything that is detestable about this thespian of the harridan persuasion is used magnificently. She’s evil incarnate and her ludicrous Southern accent is just what the doctor ordered in terms of bringing her natural freakishness to the top. Marissa’s seemingly endless obsession with her teeth is a welcome motif and I couldn’t get enough of Blanchett brushing, flossing, gumming, spitting and tongue-against-tooth gap smacking. She’s quite a horrid screen character and Blanchett is perhaps the only one who could have done it justice. Her more repulsive traits as a screen persona finally mesh with a character that outright demands the pole - that is perpetually and normally up Blanchett’s ass - be rammed even deeper. With this film her performance is the result of said pole drilling a hole through innards all the way to bloody China

The film’s score by the Chemical Brothers is stunning. I’d heard of them before, but never bothered to seek them out as most techno-trance nonsense seems, well… like nonsense. Within the context of the movie, the music kicks proverbial ass – sometimes with subtlety and at other moments like a jackhammer. They are the perfect composers for this strange, wonderful movie.

One of Hanna’s obsessions is what music is since she’s studied it on the page, but never heard it in the fairytale Arctic hideaway. During one of the scenes of home schooling, Hanna asks Erik about music. One of the books describes it in terms of movement. In this respect, the score is used expertly by Wright and rendered beautifully by the Chemical Brothers.

Movies, by their very nature, are movement, and Hanna, as a character, is constantly moving. It’s a score that never leaves your mind. It’s been tinkling and/or grinding away in my head constantly. I loved it so much I laid my hands on every piece of Chemical Brothers imaginable.

I’m glad I did. The Chemical Brothers rule!

One of the movie’s considerable virtues is, in reiteration, the writing. It’s a screenplay rife with ambition and chock-full of some truly extraordinary dialogue. It features one of the best opening and closing lines I’ve seen in any movie in recent years. I won’t ruin it for you, but it’s a heartbreaker. Like so much in this movie, it stays with you.

Staying power is probably a movie’s most desirable quality – one that is so seldom aspired to. And Hanna stays with you. While time will ultimately tell how powerful its staying power actually will be, there's simply no denying that it's a terrific movie. It embraces genre tropes with open arms, but does so in ways that always feel out of the ordinary. That is something to embrace. It’s rare these days, and Hanna is not anything if not a complete oddball of a motion picture.

More importantly, the combination of fairytale a la Grimm (the little girl finding her way out of the deep, dark forest and facing an evil witch and her minions) mixed with every orphan's dream (to find family) and the "reality" of a harsh outside world moved me – not once, but three times in the span of a few days.

To the movie’s shortcomings, all I can offer is that sometimes greatness needs to be imperfect to be real. And this is one Grimm Fairy Tale that feels especially real in the dark days that surround all of us.

It’s a movie for the ages – and then some.

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