Friday, October 07, 2011

Hannah (Joe Wright, 2011)

Ronan looking suitably shell-shocked in Hanna

Little killer girl

Hanna, Joe Wright's first attempt to direct an original screenplay as opposed to a literary adaptation, is fun in a lowbrow way, easily his most enjoyable work yet. It's silly from the get-go and not as smart as it thinks; the fight sequences range wildly in quality, from incomprehensible to derivative. But the imagery is vivid, and the performances compelling and memorable.

The basic premise goes like this: Erik Heller (Eric Bana) trains his daughter Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) to be a remorseless, relentless killer in the icy reaches of Finland. The girl is hunted by intelligence officer Marissa Wegler (Cate Blanchett), who's trying to clean up the mess left behind by an old CIA program involving unwanted fetuses and genetic manipulation.

The story so far seems like the kind of fantasy scenario dreamed up by ambitious young college students while still in film school--and in fact is the product of a film school graduate, one Seth Lochhead (with additional polish provided by TV writer and playwright David Farr). What brings the movie down to Earth and in the realm of human emotions is what happens when Hanna escapes--she falls in with a hippie-ish family out on a camping vacation, and makes friends with their daughter Sophie (Jessica Barden). Life with Sophie and her parents affords Hanna her own fantasy, that of living a normal life, with normal friends--even a potential boyfriend, without the prospect of snapping his neck.

Ronan plays Hanna like a robot or android with its human infiltration software imperfectly installed--but instead of crippling her performance, this not-all-there quality only intensifies it, makes it mysterious and (hence) fascinating. The girl has a pale wintery beauty that befits the Finnish snowscape; when taken on the camping trip she's hilariously out of place--an ethereal fairy lacking only a pair of wings to fly off and sprinkle pixie dust all over everyone.

As her father Eric Bana does creditably well--a mix of training coach and father, with all the accompanying baggage of patriarchal guilt and pride (it doesn't hurt that he's in perfect physical condition to kick ass). As CIA Officer Wegler Cate Blanchett easily steals the show; she lays her Texan accent about her like a cudgel, and fires laser glares at her opponents from her brilliant blue eyes (she's more than a match for Ronan, gazewise). She gives the movie the campy charge it badly needs, and indicates a potential direction the picture sadly refuses to take--the whole thing could have been more persuasive, sold as a more explicitly comic romp.

Director Wright isn't one to inspire admiration--his 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice was widely and highly regarded, though I much prefer either Colin Firth or Laurence Olivier as Mr. Darcy and Jennifer Ehle or Greer Garson as Liz Bennet anytime (Kiera Knightly as Wright's Liz was too, I don't know, contemporary-looking; too bony; too slight in terms of talent and charisma to really count). I thought his 2007 adaptation of Ian McEwan's Atonement was a beautifully staged misfire, with a wretchedly edited crucial love scene near its beginning (again featuring the perennially miscast Miss Knightly), a pretentiously overextended post-battlefield tracking shot near its middle, and a finale (narrated by the great Vanessa Redgrave) that practically begs you to shed tears (and I would, for wasting Redgrave in this). I had my suspicions with Pride, but Atonement that pretty much confirmed it for me--Wright doesn't really know what he was doing.

With the kind of premise the movie has--killer girl chased by intelligence agency--you'd think the action sequences would be crucial, and you'd be right. Wright, unfortunately, only gets it partly right--he tends to shoot far too close in for us to see what's going on clearly, and doesn't seem to know how to use the judicially applied cut to create mounting tension. That said, a fight scene where Erik fends off four attackers in a single, constantly re-framing long take is impressive, the best single action sequence in the picture, until you realize Wright is cribbing from Park-Chan Wook's far more impressively staged and shot Oldboy.

It's a mixed bag, really--a pair of beautiful killers confronting each other; a chase over Finnish snowscapes, Moroccan deserts and an abandoned amusement park (a location that manages to be both evocative and pretentious); a director only half in control over his material,  a script written back in film school. It makes you long for the equally pretentious but far more entertaining visual stylings of Luc Besson, who at least know how to cut, and use slow motion, and the like--a man Terence Rafferty once described as “The end of French cinema as we know it.” Wright doesn't represent the end of anything, though you wonder why he keeps bothering. For the record he's doing another adaptation, his most ambitious yet, of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina--this some fourteen years after Bernard Rose's version (critically lambasted, though in my book an underrated gem), with gorgeous Sophie Marceau as Anna. Rose is at least twice the filmmaker Wright is; why oh why does the man even bother?

First published in Businessworld, 9.29.11


The Criterion Collector said...

Ive seen this movie way back in april, how come it took so long to b released here? Oh by the way
Saoirse Ronan kicks ASS!!!!

Noel Vera said...

I dunno. Apparently they thought it wouldn't make money.

I agree. So does Blanchett, I think.