Monday, May 30, 2011

Little girl lost... little movie bonkers.

(Image: Focus Features and
Brit director Joe Wright is best known for his Oscar-nominated movie of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (2005) and his Oscar-nominated movie of Ian McEwan's Atonement (2007).  But in what feels like a conscious move to avoid being pinned down as a maker of high-minded, awards-bait literary adaptations, he's turned out a truly weird B-movie action-thriller titled Hanna, a modestly-budgeted US-UK-German co-production which I saw on a whim the other night and enjoyed quite a bit.  It's the sort of derivative, smartass genre piece that makes a lot of intelligent people roll their eyes, and I couldn't really blame anyone for not liking it.  But I found its exuberance and willful eccentricity irresistible, with a big help from an engaging central performance.

That would be courtesy of Saoirse Ronan, the nigh-unpronounceable teenage prodigy who came out of nowhere in Atonement to become Hollywood's latest underage Streep-in-the-making - though here she's more a Sigourney Weaver in the making.  The movie opens with Hanna living in a sort of survivalist Eden in a snowbound forest in Finland with her grizzley-bearded pop Erik (Eric Bana).  They live in a cabin by lantern-light, hunt their food, and make their own clothes from animal pelts; Bana reads to her from encyclopedias, making her memorize copious facts from an outside world she has apparently never seen, when he's not launching sneak attacks on her to hone her hand-to-hand combat skills, like a paternal Kato lying in wait for Inspector Clouseau.  I'm not exactly spoiling anything when I tell you the obvious: there's espionage skullduggery in Erik's past, his old employers are still looking for him, and Hanna will soon encounter that outside world.

According to the Internet Movie Database, Seth Lochhead and David Farr's script a few years ago made someone's list of best unproduced screenplays, which is a little surprising - the basic story and characters are off-the-rack items from Bourne & Bourne Couturiers, and never get developed to much depth.  The devil is in the daft details, many of them courtesy of Wright's direction, clearly the work of a pulp movie geek just letting himself go joyously.  The style is all over the place, from arty quietude to sensory overload, realistic to grotesquely cartoonish; the action scenes are all ragged hand-held camera and jump cuts one minute, then "look, Ma, no edits!" steadicam the next, and then balletic slow-motion.  The only consistent scheme to the camera angles and lighting and editing is maximum showoff.  

Sometimes Wright goes for somber gravity, or even poetry (as in the glorious early moment when Hanna stands on a snowy mountainside and screams in joy and wonder at the gleaming airplane that flies low over her head).  Then he'll suddenly step into dopey cheesiness as if nonchalantly flying the bird at the audience - he more or less indiscriminately slathers on a throbbing techno score (by the Chemical Brothers, supposedly among the best in a genre I largely ignore).  A chase sequence in a high-tech superspy lair turns into something like a Devo video; a key suspense setpiece is set in a cottage with a Grimms' fairy tales theme-park motif, to the strains of a classical symphony (I forget which one).

The characters, aside from Hanna and her father, are florid caricatures, some more interesting than others.  Cate Blanchett's CIA archvillain takes one of Hollywood's favorite bugaboos, the ice-queen career woman, to ridiculous extremes - her pallor, her evil-robot mannerisms, even her obsessive dental hygiene routine, all verge on parody, and I could never tell how much I was meant to take the character seriously.  More amusingly but even more retrograde attitude-wise, her go-to superassassin (Tom Hollander) is a creepy bleach-blonde Eurotrash gay dude who runs a Berlin nightclub with transsexual performers and runs around in what my memory insists was a tracksuit, although I might be making that up.  My favorites were the goofy-sad modern-hippie family wandering North Africa and Europe in a van who befriend Hanna, to their peril, of course.

Around these latter characters clusters most of what modest thematic depth Hanna has.  They're an obvious funhouse-mirror image of the heroine's own even more off-the-grid family and upbringing.  They condescend, in a sweet way, to this strange, spacey girl, unaware that she has, through no choice of her own, broken the bonds of ordinary modern life in ways they could only dream of.  The best supporting player is young Jessica Barden as the motormouthed, verbally and socially precocious teenage daughter - an obvious alternate-universe Hanna, but such a charming character and performance that she transcends her blunt symbolic function.  If the main idea struggling to surface through the movie's nonsense is something about how children are socialized by the narratives we construct for them, these characters do more to highlight that than the script's heavy-handed Grimms' fairy tales motif.

(Image: Focus Features and Indiewire)
I don't know if I would have had the patience for any of this if it weren't for Ronan.  With her haunted, searing-blue eyes, open, ingenuous expressions and striking but not quite conventionally pretty face, she was made for this role.  She convincingly embodies a girl of formidable prowess set drastically off-kilter - almost autistic in her social maladjustment but in other ways wise beyond her years.  Her tense, hesitant body language - particularly the way her head darts around quickly as if always on the lookout for an attacker in her peripheral vision - is subtle but quietly heartwrenching.  She gives Hanna a heart it wouldn't otherwise have had.

Heart or no, it's nice to see there's still room for an oddball individual voice in this genre.  With action movies so locked into numbing, CGI-shiny sameness, it would be nice if Hanna had received more support from critics.  After all, if we're going to have formulaic, escapist fun, shouldn't it be this... you know, fun?


  1. I thought Hanna received a decent amount of praise from critics! I can see it even ranking in some critics best of the year (but in no ways will it be the film that people ask "Did you forget about Hanna?"). Considering the quality of American action films...or how most superhero films are lacking in action, I found Hanna to be a pretty big breath of fresh air!

  2. Well, I guess it's hard to quantify exactly what the critical reaction to a movie is... unless you're Rotten Tomatoes!

    Or Metacritic!

    Yeah, decent reviews on the whole, I guess. Maybe I'm just fantasizing about a world where an odd little movie like this can still come out of nowhere and catch a lot of spontaneous buzz and a mass audience. A world where what critics say still makes at least a little bit of difference. That world is dead. So why am I doing this? Great, you've managed to give me an existential crisis in one comment, A. Thanks!

    Speaking of, first comment on this blog! Where do you want your plaque sent?