A dark modern fairy tale crossed with an international spy thriller, Hanna is an exhilarating film that draws on a range of cultural anxieties surrounding children. The films titular character Hanna Heller (Saoirse Ronan) is both an innocent experiencing the world for the first time and a highly efficient killer, trained since she was a child in isolation in Northern Finland by her ex-CIA father Erik (Eric Bana). On the run from the ruthless intelligence agent Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), Hanna is something of a helpless babe in the woods encountering civilisation, social interactions and sexuality for the first time. However, she’s also part of the cinematic tradition of monstrous children where her outward appearance of innocence and youth makes her murderous abilities so much more disturbing
At first glance Hanna may seem like a similar character to Hit-Girl from Kick-Ass, but while the characters have a similar background the films are stylistically and thematically very different. With its bold production design, thunder electronic soundtrack by the Chemical Brothers and overall hyper-real tonality, Hanna feels directly inspired by the 1990s European classics Nikita and Run Lola Run.
Director Joe Wright may be best known for period films Pride & Prejudice and Atonement (he also did The Soloist), but his films have always displayed a remarkable grasp of how to best engage the audience visually. In particular, Wright is quickly becoming an expert in the use of extended uninterrupted long takes, to give scenes an enhanced real-time sense of drama and tension. Wright’s mastery of this challenging cinematic technique was evident in the spectacular Dunkirk beach scene in Atonement and once again during several key moments in Hanna.
In contrast to the long take scenes are the sequences where Wright gets the pulse racing with his very engaging rhythmic editing. The scene with Hanna running through the tunnel system in a large underground bunker combines pulsating music, quick edits and low lit architecture consisting of mostly geometric shapes to give the sequence a weird aesthetic as if it were an modern art installation filmed like a music video. The action in Hanna is unconventional, unpredictable and even a little eerie since at the centre of it all is not Jason Bourne but a young girl who at times resembles a haunted child from a late 1990s Japanese horror film. With popular cinema so saturated in action-based spectacle, making action look so breathtakingly fresh and original is a significant achievement.
The increasingly garish and surreal use of settings wonderfully expresses the film’s perversion of childhood in a similar way that the nightmarish fun park at the climax of Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai indicates the breakdown of logic and rationality for that film’s protagonist. In Hanna many aspects of the film are similarly overtly stylised and exaggerated to convey Hanna’s point-of-view as somebody encountering a world that she’d previously only learned about through reading Brothers Grimm fairy tales.
Saoirse Ronan is superb at ensuring Hanna evokes a balance of sympathy and uncanny unease from the audience. Bana gives an effective low-key and oddly sweet performance as her taskmaster father while as the film’s villain Blanchett is gloriously over-the-top. The image of Blanchett emerging from the mouth of a giant wolf is completely unsubtle and obvious, yet it perfectly suits the tone of the film to deliver one of the most memorable singular cinematic images from the past few years. It’s the final touch to what makes Hanna such an extraordinarily visceral and subjective film, brilliantly straddling the divide between art-house and action cinema.