British director Joe Wright was responsible for two brilliant period drama book adaptations, Pride & Prejudice in 2005 and Atonement in 2007. He wandered closer to Hollywood with his next picture – an ill-fated biopic of a homeless cellist which, despite starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr., was seen by very few people. It was an odd, awkward film, but its failure wasn’t entirely Wright’s fault, as its release occurred during a studio fallout between DreamWorks and Paramount, the studios involved in its production and distribution. But, however one reads this strange episode in recent Hollywood history, it’s hard not to shake off the feeling that Icarus had got too close to the LA sun and consequently crashed to the ground. One may have expected Wright to skulk back sheepishly to direct a remake of Northanger Abbey or at least something similar set in early-19th Century Kent or Bath involving love letters, desperate young women and Dame Judi Dench in the corner looking regal. But no. He’s decided it is time to try his hand at an action movie.
Hanna isn’t a conventional nuts and bolts actioner. It’s weird, erratic, jumpy and stunning to look at. Saiorse Ronan is our title character. She was excellent in Atonement, okay in The Lovely Bones, but here she hands in her best performance to date, with a steel-tough portrayal of a teenage girl trained to run, fight and kill. At the start of the film we see Hanna and her father (an understated but watchable Eric Bana) living in Arctic surroundings. He is schooling her himself, and teaches her skills we would associate with the armed forces or secret assassins. It isn’t clear who or what she is, but after expressing a wish for a change of lifestyle he allows her to activate a tracking device which will tell CIA boss Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett) where they are. He leaves her in their small wooden home in the snowy forest and arranges to meet her in Germany. She has to kill Marissa, escape and find her way to Europe.
This, of course, doesn’t go exactly according to plan; as Hanna is tricked into thinking another red-headed secret agent is Wiegler, but she does escape and ends up befriending a British family holidaying in Morocco. Meanwhile, at the CIA, Wiegler is more than a little pissed off at being outsmarted by a child. She hires a terrifyingly ruthless killer (played with delectable menace by Tom Hollander) to hunt down Hanna and kill whoever may get in his way.
There is a lot of running, fighting, shouting, shooting and other scenes of a violent nature, but somehow Wright doesn’t let them become tiresome and films the many action sequences with cool style and savage intensity. He also takes care to remember that, although gifted in violence and defence, Hanna is still a teenager and manages to parallel the thriller plot with a rather sweet and sometimes funny coming-of-age story.
Cate Blanchett as Wiegler is astonishing, but we’ve come to expect nothing less from that Australian superwoman of talent and charisma. Wiegler may have a funny haircut, but she is tough as hell and Blanchett never lets us forget it. The character also has what Shakespeare-lovers would call ‘Lady Macbeth syndrome’ – perhaps the only evidence that this woman isn’t completely immune to the upsetting aspects of her job – but in this instance it isn’t hands that are obsessively cleaned but her teeth, with a large electric toothbrush.
For his past films Joe Wright has hired out the services of composer Dario Marianelli (his soundtrack for Atonement earned him an Academy Award) but this time he opts for a more techno feel, employing The Chemical Brothers to write a pounding electrical score. Their heavy-beat tracks do take some getting used to, but after a few minutes it becomes clear they don’t only enhance the tension of the fight scenes but raise the quality of the whole picture.
Hanna does have its weaknesses. Characters seem to jump from country to country, with little explanation as to how they got there and in so little time. And a rushed explanation as to the identity of our heroine or (anti-heroine) is not the big shock it could have been.
The film has been compared to the Bourne series and Salt, although its tone is very different, as is the more stylised way it is executed. Wright, who is set to direct an upcoming adaptation of Anna Karenina, may always have a home in the literary costume stable, but his holiday in the world of the action thriller is a trip to remember. Let’s hope it won’t be his last.
Good: An action film plus a whole lot more. Intelligent, exciting and effortlessly cool.
Bad: Some things go unexplained, and there is a coherence issue with the plot (but only a small one).