Monday, 9 May 2011
From the vengeful "Bride" of the 'Kill Bill' films to Zack Synder's 'Sucker Punch', violent actioners featuring female protagonists are an increasingly common sight at the multiplex. Few eyebrows will be raised then, in the era of 'Kick-Ass', to hear about 'Hanna' - a film about a teenage girl brought up as a deadly killer. After all, Angelina Jolie has been shooting people on our screens for years. But whilst the vast majority of silver screen heroines are really just scantily-clad male fantasy figures - strong characters in only the most superficial sense - 'Hanna' is a smart, character-driven movie which brings to mind the complexities of Ripley in 'Alien' rather than the mindlessness of 'Salt' or 'Tomb Raider'.
The impressive Saoirse Ronan, who shone in director Joe Wright's 'Atonement', stars as the title character raised as a killer in an icy wilderness and tasked by her father (Eric Bana) with killing the secret agent (Cate Blanchett) who drove them into hiding. She quickly performs this task (or so she thinks) and then ends up on the run from the American military, as well as a bizarre group of German thugs/circus performers lead by an extremely camp Tom Hollander.
The film centres primarily on her awakening as a fully-fledged individual (rather than just a killing machine): it's a coming of age story for Hanna as a women. But the film also explores the ideas of motherhood via Blanchett's interactions with various figures in the young girl's life: her mother; her father; her grandmother. Behind Blanchett's pursuit of Hanna there is an engaging ambiguity. There is a wordless suggestion at one point that she can't herself have children. Does she want to mother Hanna? Or destroy her? Far from simply existing as a take-it-or-leave-it subtext, these themes compliment the film's moments of action and visa versa. Violence is almost always married to the thrill of experience and the development of character.
The first time we hear anything of the pounding Chemical Brothers score is when Hanna makes a conscious decision to leave the safety of life with he father and accept her deadly mission. The music functions to make her anxiety and excitement palpable, and every time we hear the music subsequently - such as when she is escaping from a military facility - it, along with the artful strobe lighting, forms part of a hyper-stylised representation of Hanna's psyche. When soldiers surround her log cabin near the start of the film, the music stands for nervous anticipation of first contact with people other than her father. In this way Hanna is an example of proper cinema - often using sound and image to tell its story rather than simply leaving that to dialogue.
There is a terrific internationalist air to proceedings too as Hanna alternates between languages and goes through several countries over the course of her journey. Wherever she goes she interacts with people from other far-flung places too, but without the film being particularly showy about it. The film also manages to pull off something very rarely seen, as a kiss between Hanna and a girl she befriends (played by the terrifically funny Jessica Barden) manages to avoid seeming gratuitous or cynically motivated. In fact Hanna's relationship with Barden's character is not even really sexualised: it functions more as part of her character's longing for new experiences and human contact, played out with the only person (aside from her father) with whom she establishes a bond of trust.
In terms of cinematography and art design, 'Hanna' is tremendous and beautiful - especially when it comes to outdoor sequences bathed in naturalistic light and the warm fire-lit interiors of Hanna's cabin during the opening sections. The expertly choreographed lighting of the chase sequences is dazzling and bursting with energy. Though, as with Wright's much-heralded Dunkirk tracking shot in 'Atonement', there is a self-conscious aspect to some of the film's visuals. For instance, what do we gain from a brief shot from the point of view of a wounded animal during a hunt? It's jarring and out of place in a film in which the music and design is otherwise so consistently placing you in the position of the protagonist. Some of the accents, especially that of Eric Bana, are also pretty peculiar and changeable, though this isn't such a big deal in a film with such a stylised reality.
For some, the middle section of the film (in which Hanna goes on a road trip with a nice middle class family) might seem at odds with the pacing and the tightness of the earliest sections and the finale - and they may have a point, given the expectation of a straight thriller. But to make this assessment would be to miss the point of what 'Hanna' actually is. It's a film where action is secondary to character development, in which Hanna's interaction with non-violent people and her discovery of friendship - and just maybe Platonic love - is every bit as important as any scene of neck-snapping or gun-wielding. It's 'The American' from the perspective of a curious, confused and hyper-active young girl, rather than a middle-aged, world-weary man. This is what makes the film stand apart from the superficial "girl power" crowd. 'Hanna' is the real deal.
'Hanna' is rated '12A' by the BBFC and is on general release now.