REVIEW: Saoirse Ronan is Nifty New Action Heroine in Hanna
Who would ever have thought that Robert Ludlum would have become the father of modern action cinema? The ruthless 2002 film adaptation of his novel The Bourne Identity -- with the hero trying to figure who or what he (or she is), while amassing a body count that warrants coverage on CNN -- is now the genre standard, and in this year alone, we've seen a number of variations on that theme. The most recent is director Joe Wright's efficient and soulful Hanna, in which the title character (played by Saorise Ronan), a pale-skinned teenager with matching sandalwood hair and eyebrows, has mastered the art of contained chaos.
Wright applies an artful eye to carnage; he and production designer Sarah Greenwood exhaustively deploy their love for finding colors that mirror the characters' psychological states. His contradictions -- willfulness tacked onto wonderment like a Post-It note -- come through here in ways that they haven't before, which gives a new, engrossing charge to something that could be all too familiar. That bi-polarity is also present in his star, whom he directed to an Oscar nomination in the 2006 drama Atonement; they're like Scorsese and De Niro for the Disney Channel.
Some might think Hanna is in fact a malevolent pilot for a late-night Disney Channel series: The girl grows up in a remote and punishing forest, trained by an austere father Erik (Eric Bana) who treats wasted words as a sin. (Bana enlivens this by giving everything he says a slight impatience, even in the lonely snowy landscape far from civilization.) When the movie starts, Wright shows us exactly how good she is at taking a target down -- and that she still has a ways to go. Hanna is about that journey, as she's exposed to the real world, taking in sights and sounds for the first time. And though her motivations aren't revealed until things have become more complicated, Hanna also has a new target: CIA agent Marissa (Cate Blanchett). The chilly and clenched Marissa dresses like a peculiarly stylish Milanese widow, in slate grays and hunter greens from last fall's Prada collection - she's in mourning for her own lack of family; at one point, she's asked if she has children and says, with a hint of remorse, "I made certain choices."
When Hanna encounters a family taking a summer vacation trek across Europe, Wright and screenwriters Seth Lochhead and David Farr make clear the advantages -- and disadvantages -- of Hanna's deprivation. She gravitates towards the family, which includes a mom (Olivia Williams) determined to her kids an unfiltered view of the world, a dad (Jason Flemyng) out to create a more traditional experience, a wide-eye little boy (Aldo Maland) and Sophie (Jessica Barden), who's Hanna's age and becomes her kinda-mentor. Sophie is on a mission almost as deadly as Hanna's; she's out to steal the movie from Ronan, with her born-to-be-mature discourses on the world. These girls, equally eager, are the most combustible combination in the movie, and their chemistry is as relentless as the action.
There's a vengeful and gripping quality to the violence that makes it feel like mixed martial arts from the Old Testament; the noise level also explodes when there's mayhem on screen, instead of the continual sonic bruising action films general trade in. Wright blends the aural experience like a master DJ, using sound to set mood. It makes sense, since he used to run raves -- which is why the Chemical Brothers step in for the score; they're as hard to get as Hanna. Their sound, with its slight aftertaste of old-school techno, has an amusing visual component: In addition to Marissa's CIA team, Hanna is also being stalked by a trio of blond killers with high foreheads who look like Autobahn, the Kraftwerk-imitators from The Big Lebowski. All that's missing is them proclaiming "We're nihilists" as they happily inflict damage. (One section with links to the Brothers Grimm, to hammer home the fairy tale framing, that hilarious evokes a rave -- it's almost a pity that theaters can't be sprayed with red bull to further enhance that old rave redolence.)
There's a more specific, and probably intentional, visual aspect: Wright's long-take panache, which pays off in the action sequences. They're staged so that everything can be seen; his films are as wide-eyed as Ronan. A dusk-set scene with Bana starting off in the street and ending in a subway is the most vivid example. The movie is also as much a compendium of newness for Wright as it is for his title character - there's an exciting learning curve in motion here for the director of Pride and Prejudice and The Soloist.
But the biggest fight is a battle -- between Erik, Marissa and to some extent, Sophie and her family -- for Hanna's soul. Wright leans towards the damning taint of experience on the young; for him, it's as awful as the trails of blood in the snow at the beginning of the movie, and there's a price for the fearsome excitement. Hanna wants to give you something to walk out of theater with -- and succeeds at that.