The Bourne films were one of the best things about the last decade, redefining the modern action film and featuring a preternaturally skilled assassin who is still sympathetic and relatable as a person. I was expecting a similarly high quotient of critical beatdowns in Hanna, as it uses a superspy killer as a springboard to a globe-hopping chase. Though there are some riveting combat scenes and femur-cracking action, this turned out to be something other entirely. The thoughtful screenplay by Seth Lochhead and David Farr (their first feature) and odd direction by Joe Wright (Atonement) create a modern fairy tale. A world which can be traversed in 24 hours and is filled with technology only skews this fable slightly; it is a surreal, colorful, and dangerous world, fittingly comparable with (and referencing) the Brothers Grimm. In that way, it compares most closely to The Wizard of Oz. This classic is a riot of color and twisted logic that is thematically about the trials of growing up in a dangerous world.
Hanna is sixteen, and has only known her father and solitude. He has raised her in an isolated cabin in the forest, taught several languages, an endless list of facts from various books, and basic survival skills. This home schooling has created a girl who is smart, crafty, and independent. She is able to kill a man using her bare hands, but this is incidental. On the down side, she is socially inept. In short, extensive theoretical knowledge, but none practical. The mantra is ‘adapt or die’, the rallying cry for all parents who do their job properly, though rarely worded in such a succinct way. He keeps a satellite transmitter that is capable of contacting CIA headquarters, and she is instructed to flip the switch to summon Marissa. She is a cruel and calculating woman who killed Hanna’s mother, and surely she will pursue this girl to the ends of the earth. Her father, Erik, gives her access to this transmitter, after she assures him that she is ready after a healthy asskicking. For what? In the story, she is to find and kill Marissa, which is stupid. That her father should be the one to carry out this mission goes without saying, but this is not the point of this strange film.
The switch is only a symbol of the coming of age; her period, if you will. The blood soon flows as the CIA swarms the cabin and takes her prisoner. Wright gives a beautiful and measured appearance to Hanna, and gives the impression of how information comes to a child. The film starts in frozen silence, an icy tundra. Noise occasionally intrudes, jarring suggestions of a world apart from her experience. Then she is taken to a barren area that yields to color, crowds, and technological chaos. Leaving home can immerse one in culture shock, and adjustment takes time. Her father is gone, and this is her time of testing. He has raised her well, and she moves with a surgical precision. She is taught to work without hesitation, and act without mercy. Overly simplistic lessons, but this is what her father knows best. As her journey takes her across nations, she meets people, befriends a family, and must confront the limitations of her experience. She meets another girl, and learns what it means to have a friend, and soon enough has her first experience with betrayal. Hanna meets a boy, and her first dalliance with sexual longing is awkward, but is a step everyone must take. And with time, she grows, and more importantly, makes critical mistakes. It is a great and terrible day when we commit the first grave error that could ruin someone’s life. Everyone not living in their parents’ basement will do this eventually.
No parent can truly prepare their child fully for life, but they can do their best. Erik gave her a deep factual grooming, and then let her go completely. Some parents, though, are unable to let go. Hanna’s mother is dead; Marissa is the odd one out. She has a steely exterior, unless confronted by the girl; her vulnerability suggests a surrogate role, the murder of Hanna’s biological mom being an adoption of sorts. She hovers over Hanna, employing an army of people and technological wizardry like an overbearing matriarch. She does not wish to kill her, only continue her training with a creepy desire to possess. Marissa does note that she ‘made certain choices’ and avoided having children of her own; this is not a flaw in itself, but her regret is. We all know parents like this, who threaten sports coaches if their darling is not given a good position, read diaries, trail their kids to dates, or otherwise traffic in the suffocating zealotry masquerading as parenting. Interestingly, this approach is made out to be the greatest villain possible. Marissa unleashes a pedo to hunt down Hanna, suggesting that a sheltered life is the worst possible thing you can provide to your offspring.
Another element of subtext considers the savage and the civil, and how the lines blur between the two. Hanna and Erik are savage, killing and gutting deer by hand, spilling blood of their enemies without a second thought. As she continues her journey, she enters a place equal turns safe and destructive. The civil aspects of our world serve to stabilize our lives and lifestyles, sequestering us all in paddocks that protect life and property, and prevent us from simply massacring those who stand in our way or stealing what we wish to survive. As a result, people are more likely to live in relative comfort, and potential mass murderers are kept in check by a combination of national and international laws and the forces of commerce. Yet the savage instinct shines through on occasion, as individuals are allowed to manifest their true compulsions. The aforementioned pedo revels in killing, and is commissioned by Marissa to pursue Hanna because he is outside the law. Marissa is a CIA middle manager, and represents the tightest forces of civility, and is the most savage of them all. These forces must coexist; if the world lacked any regulations, it would be a terrible place where suffering would be essential to the many to serve the will of the few; if the world were an infinitely elaborate bureaucracy, free will would vanish and the true potential of the individual would be made slave to the popular will. Humanity exists in the balance. Hanna would loathe to live as a savage without a friend to trust in, but her savage nature is necessary to dispatch those who pursue her.
Hanna is a fantastic action film in service of a fantasy, and the fight scenes are remarkable in that you can actually see what is happening, rather than having every other strike obscured by cuts and CGI. Hanna is played with great skill by Saoirse Ronan as being on the cusp between childhood and adulthood. She conveys the complex experience of violent confusion as her path is made clear to her. Cate Blanchett makes short work of the scenery as a malignant mother figure whose urge to control drives her to hateful impulses. When Hanna arrives at her moment of truth, it is a delicious scene set amidst a literal playground of Grimm’s fairytales in their tattered and worn glory. That Wright sets such a ridiculous and over the top tone serves the film well, as none of this is to be taken literally, or seriously. When Dorothy awoke in Kansas, she has experienced terror and is the wiser for it. Hanna experiences trial by blood, and such lethal testing will serve her well in the years to come. This is an essential film for anyone who considers spawning as an oblique example of how it should and should not be done.