As part of our Ultimate Playbill project, each week a faculty member will take the time to extol the virtues of one of the beloved films on this list. This week, I tackle IP’s #3 pick, HANNA (2011, Wright)
On the misty, snow covered tundra, a lump of white reveals itself as a swan. From the air, we see an inlet of deep blue water lazily circulating frozen shoals. An arctic fox pup peaks out over its belly before cutting to a young woman aiming her bow at a grazing deer. She quickly and quietly lets an arrow fly into the deer’s breast, which then hobbles off into an open plain. The young woman pursues the creature as it collapses from its mortal wound. “I just missed your heart,” she states before firing a pistol, mercifully killing her prey. As the loud blast rings out from the silence, it simultaneously cuts to a title card which imposes itself over the entire screen. The young woman and the film are called “Hanna”.
In the first two minutes of this movie, we’re introduced to a grand idea that helps carry the entire film, one that is so deftly illustrated by its execution that it’s hard not to accept as being truthful: the world is a wondrous place, the world is a violent place.
Directed by Joe Wright and written by Seth Lochead and David Farr, Hanna is a tight, energetic action film wrapped around big ideas. It doesn’t just hint at the dual nature of our world, both beautiful and terrifying, but it gets at something distinctly human. Hanna is a parable about a parent’s need to protect their child, and a child’s need to grow up and take care of themselves. Though the script uses typical action tropes: men in black with choppers chasing people, evil neo-nazis, and underground ambushes, the themes are concisely explored in every character interaction, making this one of the most thoughtful action movies of our time.
When watching Saoirse Ronan, it’s hard for me not to think that I’m maybe watching the next Meryl Streep come into her own. Ronan and Wright collaborated before on Atonement, in which Ronan was definitely my favorite part, but in the awesome tapestry of elements that makes Hanna great – its direction, cinematography, editing, and music – it’s the performances that really drive the emotions, the stuff that gets to us audience members as individual people. Hanna is a character who is experiencing many things for the first time. Ronan is asked to respond with curiosity, skepticism and wonder, and her expressions are absolutely amazing. Her delight at seeing a plane fly overhead, or her confusion at being kissed the first time looks so believable, it feels real. Some of those best moments occur between Hanna and Sophie (Jessica Barden), the first real friend Hanna makes, and Sophie’s mother, Rachel (Olivia Williams), a highly educated hippie, both of whom give Hanna her first taste of family and individuality.
When she’s not demonstrating her emotional chops, Ronan is playing the youngest, female action hero I can think of, and her physicality during altercations is equally convincing in terms of realism. It’s amazing how Hanna embodies the idea of wonder and violence, while her father embodies practical fear and violence.
Bana’s performance as Hanna’s father, Erik Heller, is both pensive and brutal. The character has spent the last fifteen or so years motivated by the fear that something bad would happen to Hanna. He gives her some of the most effective survival skills, sacrificing his own life, knowing that one day everything he’s done may not be enough to protect her. While reading from an encyclopedia, the only window Hanna has to the world beyond her isolated homestead, Erik realizes his daughter has come of age and she will soon need to leave the protection their isolation offers and go into the real world. He digs up an old homing beacon from his days as a CIA operative, and presents it to Hanna with a warning: flip this switch and the world opens to you, but once you flip it, it’s on. This only goes forward, there’s no going back. How many times have you heard parents say “it seems like only yesterday I was changing their diapers,” or some similar reminiscing about how suddenly a child has grown up? The beacon is an elegantly simple device illustrating that idea, and the scenes between father and daughter that lead to it being turned on are powerfully moving.
Hanna is predisposed to being a living weapon, and her father has raised her to be an efficient machine of self-sufficiency. He’s taught her every major language, her encyclopedic memory stores all the data of the world (except what has to be learned through experience), and she’s proficient with weapons and hand-to-hand combat. Surely Erik knows in terms of protecting herself, Hanna is light years ahead of the average soldier, but he can’t help but worry about her. “Always think on your feet, even when you’re sleeping” is a mantra in this family the way “lock the doors when you leave” is typical in a suburban home. Though Erik has raised Hanna to be a warrior, he knows that he can’t truly prepare her for the challenges of reality while they live like fairy-tale characters out in the woods.
So Hanna chooses to flip the switch, beginning her transition into our reality and into adulthood. Though she’s been expertly trained, nothing has prepared her for what she will experience. On the other side of the switch, awaits an evil witch of a CIA agent named Marissa Wiegler, played with relish by a stone-cold Cate Blanchett.
Blanchett is an actress whose chops are easy to recognize, but whom I often find in roles that don’t really move me. Wiegler, however, is one of the most fascinating characters on the Playbill, sharing the same complex, delicious villainy portrayed by Hans Landa or Anton Chigurh. Blanchett disappears under Wiegler’s fiery red hair and melodic Texas accent. As Wiegler, the poise and elegance that Blanchett naturally carries becomes part of the character’s facade. Her mannerisms are the restraints that keep Wiegler’s viciousness in check. Marissa is somehow partially responsible for what Hanna is, and she has no problem throwing lives away to possess her. In a beautifully telling moment, Marissa has entered a bizarre transexual nightclub owned by a former associate, Isaacs (Tom Hollander). She wants to hire Isaacs to find Hanna under the CIA’s radar, and when she leans him to kiss him on the cheek goodbye, he recoils from her touch. Isaacs and his neo-Nazi sidekicks are murderous sleaze, yet he is sickened by her. Wright as director excels at these small, subtle flourishes, adding human depth to his characters, and heightening our response to them.
Tied to the coming of age theme is the wonder of discovery, which Wright achieves viscerally thanks to the help of his crew. Cinematographer Alwin Kuchler’s camera work effectively captures those little flourishes that make Hanna a unique action movie. I already spoke of the details of the opening sequence, and it’s those subtle images and sequencing that help drive home the theme. One of my favorite shots of the film happens after Hanna has fled from a CIA holding facility and finds herself in Morocco. The camera cuts to the bustle of the market, people about in colorful garbs, and then so briefly, a little boy, whom Hanna has just befriended, leans in with his huge camera and snaps a picture. The low, wide angle makes him appear foreign to Hanna, just as his act and expression convey his own curiosity about her. Kuchler treats the world around Hanna like it’s a spread from National Geographic, and with the help of a good post-production team, the whole world looks lush and vibrant, a place you want to explore.
The other half of what makes the imagery of Hanna so striking is the kinetic editing of Paul Tothill. Tothill is a regular collaborator with Wright, having cut his previous and subsequent films. Kuchler favored a roving camera in Hanna, my guess is to emulate Hanna’s bewilderment with the world around her, and Tothill compliments those shots by using fast edits. There’s an intensity to the chase sequences (and this movie is like ⅓ chase scenes) that owes a lot to Tothill, particularly Hanna’s escape from her holding cell and the final confrontation in Mr. Grimm’s theme park. The action-driven nature of Hanna required a style with much more energy compared to the period dramas Atonement and Pride and Prejudice, and the fact that this movie achieves that is a reflection of a great working relationship. Take the pace of the editing when Hanna discovers electricity. Flashes of a light turning off and on, cutting to a television that almost belligerently demands attention, before quickly turning an electric kettle that erupts with the force of a volcano, drives home that this is a huge moment of recognition for this character, and it asks us to think about what it would be like to come from a life lived in the forest into a world of mechanics and constructs.
I already feel like I’m going on too much about this film, but I do want to briefly mention the soundtrack. In a film that consistently explores the duality of ideas, the Chemical Brothers’ score does an amazing job of creating music that evokes natural beauty and danger in an industrial world. Interestingly, Wright incorporated TCB into a main role with the sound design department, so that there would be a fluidity between the sound effects and the music. The Chemical Brothers instrumentation shines during the chase scenes, driving them forward at a high BPM, but it’s the slower moments that I find most memorable. Isaac’s theme “The Devil’s In The Details” is an earworm, and more importantly it’s a song that’s title reflects the entire ethos of the filmmaking.
The only thing that I hate about this movie, is that I didn’t get to put it on the list. For me, it’s a perfect movie. Not only is the technical filmmaking amazing, with the subtle art of shooting and cutting becoming a fascinating part of experiencing it, but its universal themes, carried out by outstanding performances, elevates it to the level of timeless storytelling. Very few movies so effectively refer to the heart of storytelling as something that entertains, but also explains. This movie is about the natural beauty of the world, the destructive nature of humanity, and how family is an idea as cruel as it is loving. Hanna does what the greatest fables in human history do. It’s a true story that isn’t real.