What if you grew up as an assassin?
Remove all romantic notions of such a life from your mind, and try to imagine that your combat skills were the foremost thing you understood about the world. Concepts such as love and innocence would be foreign to you, and you would have to learn to appreciate the vast difference between intellect and experience.
Hanna is an uneven but conceptually remarkable story of a teenager who embarks on a journey to discover what there is to see and do in the world outside of her unfortunate upbringing. Does this sound like a fairy tale? In a way it is, if the late Tom Clancy had penned it. The film is almost as much of an old-fashioned but realistic “fantasy” as a modern-day thriller, and the clash of moods and settings makes for a fairly creative product.
Note the tagline. Listen well.
In silence and snow, not too far south of the Arctic Circle, a girl stalks a reindeer with a bow. “I just missed your heart,” she tells the deer emotionlessly, in between retrieving her arrow and finishing the wounded creature off with her handgun. This is a simple yet flashy title introduction worth remembering.
After the girl begins carving, which is shown in some detail along with its results, a man sneaks up behind her and attacks. They begin fighting, and she handles herself impressively for her age. The aggressor doesn’t harm her, implying that something unrevealed is going on. In any case, Hanna has to drag the gutted dear back to the small building she calls home. The older man is shortly revealed to be her father, who reminds her of a certain important piece of advice. “I’ll do better next time,” the girl is prompted to repeat in diverse languages (how many of these did you speak, fluently, before you learned to drive?), but her own healthy interests are budding. She asks about music, which she doesn’t actually understand outside of her encyclopedic knowledge, and she reads from Grimm’s Fairy Tales, whose settings provide something of a vague undercurrent for parts of the movie.
An amazing montage sets up Hanna’s false backstory, set to the sound of gunshots and the sight of death, as she is told to adopt and recite a complex German alias. Adolescent outside and child inside, this girl with incredible knowledge of anything she studies screams in excitement when she sees an airplane–maybe she’s never seen one before.
She’s being pursued by one Marissa Wiegler, and thus as Hanna’s father informs her, the girl’s natural desire to be free and to join the real world will mean danger. He is caught between wanting to preserve her safety and wanting to give her a normal life, inasmuch as he knows how to do so. (One thing this movie feels like it desperately needs is more of an established purpose for Hanna’s knowledge and abilities. She can and does fight, but she doesn’t really have a chance to fulfill missions or contracts before the rest of the film sees her running for her life. The story feels like a reversal of a premise that isn’t actually laid out very well.)
A history for Hanna’s father Erik Heller–Eric Bana, appropriately–is made clear: Wiegler pursues Heller, believing him to be a rogue agent, and he is shown to have recruited and trained another woman, Johanna Zadek. It’s not long before a team of operatives surrounds Hanna’s and her father’s house in the middle of the night, after he has left and told the girl to come find him in Germany. The tension and pacing of this fight scene are excellent, and her capture comes at a heavy price. Her interrogator looks like Hannibal Lecter. That alone says enough.
Hanna is baffled by even the idea of the room she’s in: the cameras, the lights, and the walls all look strange to her. She wants to talk to Wiegler, while researchers talk about samples of her hair, which they conclude to be diseased or contaminated. The movie’s lack of noise creates a silent excitement and a unique mood and atmosphere.
The girl is allowed to talk to a blatant impostor of Marissa (Cate Blanchett makes a wonderful villain), and it’s not long before Hanna is crying and hugging the agent … and what do you think will happen when a skilled assassin has her believed target in a vulnerable position? Without thought or remorse, Hanna slaughters her captors and escapes. Saoirse Ronan, who incidentally provided the UK-dub voice for the title character in Arrietty, is a very emotive actress, but sometimes her running looks a bit slow. Her predator-turned-prey chase is fun to watch, though, even as some portions begin to look like a really weird German music video. In one instance the camera suddenly decides to rotate upside down.
Hanna climbs out of a manhole and winds up in a rocky desert. That is going to stink to walk on in bare feet, and that orange jumpsuit isn’t going to help. As Wiegler begins her pursuit in earnest, the film establishes the bizarre sense of humor it carries throughout: the woman grabs passports, money … and her favorite pair of shoes. We are given a flashback to our heroine being given a collection of fairy stories at a young age, and we also find an integral part of her back story: Wiegler fires shots into a passing car, which hits a tree and ignites. The camera, which moved so little in some earlier scenes as to seem bored, now furiously follows the red-haired shooter, right before she does a horrible deed that sets the rest of the plot in motion.
On the run, Hanna happens to be in Morocco, not too far away from society. People sing in Arabic while doing laundry, which eventually leads to Hanna getting a real taste of music. A kind but underutilized man lets her stay for the night, and the girl’s inexperience with real-world living becomes clear when she sees electricity for the first time and thinks Thomas Edison invented it. She’s fascinated by his small television, but when lots of appliances begin operating at once (imagine how distressing that would be if you were completely unfamiliar with them), she panics and runs. My question is why her expansive knowledge doesn’t even touch on daily conveniences that are all too easy to take for granted.
For some unfathomable reason, this movie’s dialogue sheds all sense of taste multiple times in succession. One character says she’d like to be a lesbian, “but not one of those fat ones.” Another person is spoken of as having genitalia of both sexes. Speaking of which, there’s an useless comparison made between red lipstick and parts of a woman’s anatomy, in a discussion that also brings up breast implants. Sophie and Miles, a pair of young siblings Hanna meets early on after gaining a measure of freedom, are both sometimes tactless in what they find amusing, and this otherwise engrossing film wastes a lot of time that would have been better spent on story or character development. Hanna has a requisite but sincere childhood tragedy, but other than wanting to learn about music and friendship and being all too adept at killing, there’s very little to say about her. Even the fabricated history she mentions at the beginning of the movie is more detailed than her actual personality.
There is an extended singing sequence that introduces Hanna to culture and yet goes on for so long that it feels like it belongs in a different movie. Sophie is concerned about finding and dating boys, while the movie makes no comment on Hanna’s unusual and unsettling comfort with taking life. One of the boys wants to kiss Hanna, which seems like it’s leading into some ridiculous romance with no setup–and promptly dashes that notion. (The poor girl has no concept of innuendo or, more tellingly, of the significance thereof, and yet she knows how many facial muscles are involved in kissing someone.)
Stumbling into meaning
Johanna Zadek’s role in all of this is made clear, and Hanna seems to have no hearing issues despite firing guns so much at her young age. Sophie, notably, wants Hanna to be honest before the two of them can grow close as friends, but Hanna understands little enough of her own past as is.
The movie remembers its genre in time to salvage its story, which becomes a lot more exciting when it returns to Erik as he’s walking through Germany. Nothing’s happening, but the dense urban scenery is enjoyable to watch and, to a simple extent, deconstruct (“one nation under CCTV,” we see in graffiti). An extended shot with little dialogue feels fantastic and realistic at the same time before adding some really nice techno-thriller music. Several men in fancy suits tail and surround Erik, and–you know where this is going–the resulting fight scene does look like something out of the Matrix movies without being exaggerated.
Hanna gets more action, but not much more story, and instead we’re given a thoroughly unpleasant sight of Marissa Wiegler brushing her teeth so hard that her gums bleed. The villain of all people has a charismatic personality and lies about Hanna’s past to some people who are being interrogated. Wiegler knows she’s evil and embraces it, right down to her sadistic grin.
A pleasant if odd fairy tale-styled scene late in the film makes way for some science-fiction twists that raise more questions than they answer (“for what specific purpose” being a big one, without spoiling the context). A film that’s gone on with too little emotion suddenly throws it at the viewer, and it’s surprisingly effective, as is the rest of this story’s brutal yet complete-feeling ending.
Conclusion: Flawed, but full of ideas.
Hanna isn’t quite on the level of the excellent Pan’s Labyrinth, which also interspersed fantasy ideas with elements of war in our own world. The writing, and especially the pacing aren’t interesting enough to earn this movie that much prestige, and the art design of the make-believe and modern parts of the setting never fully coheres into something greater than either of those parts would have been on their own. Upon watching this film, I was afraid it’d be too sentimental, and yet it somehow managed to have the opposite problem, making its star character too often feel a lot less “human” than she really should.
That being stated, this “fantasy”-thriller’s real magic lies in the ordinary yet beautiful concept of human interaction, which can be all too easy to take for granted. (See also Thor.) The actual development of Sophie’s and Hanna’s friendship feels rote and boring, and yet its presence in itself makes for an important part of a relatively involving story. While impolite, abruptly profane, and sometimes gruesome for its rating, Hanna is arguably also less difficult to watch than Pan’s Labyrinth, so if that film grossed you out or depressed you, consider giving this a try instead. The imagery and story aren’t always very subtle, but as far as movies go, I’ve seen much worse.
Image credits (property of Focus Features)
This article was originally written and published on my movie review blog, Projected Realities.