Hanna is sixteen years old. Her father is a former CIA operative who’s been off the radar since shortly after her birth. Her mother was killed in cold blood. For the past fourteen years she’s had no human contact beyond that of her father, a period of time that has been devoted, almost solely it seems, to training her to become a multi-lingual assassin. Living in a Finnish fairytale wilderness, replete with wood cabin and snowy landscapes, she hunts, shoots, spars with papa and eventually decides she’s ready for a return to the real world. Except re-entry isn’t going to be easy: her mother’s assassin is still at the CIA and still after the life of her father. Cue her capture, her escape and plenty more action set-pieces as Hanna hurtles through its running time. The father is played by Eric Bana. The CIA assassin by Cate Blanchett. And little Hanna is played by Saoirse Ronan, best known for playing Keira Knightley’s younger sister in Atonement, the character who essentially kickstarts the entire narrative into life.
According to reports it was Ronan who was central to bringing her Atonement director, Joe Wright, to helm Hanna after other filmmakers - Danny Boyle among them - had passed. Wright’s an interesting prospect as, notwithstanding the one-take Dunkirk scene from that earlier feature, he’s never worked on anything remotely close to the action genre. Prior to Hanna his work he directed the 2005 adaptation of Pride & Prejudice and the Oscar-bait-y The Soloist as well as Atonement. And prior to those films he’d worked in television on the likes of Charles II: The Pride & the Passion and episodes of Russell T. Davies’ Bob & Rose. In other words period pieces, respectful adaptations and low-key dramas. So why is Wright involved given his complete lack of experience in this field? Were the producers working on that logic, a là Paul Greengrass and his Bourne sequels or Christopher Nolan and his Batman movies, whereby award-winning British director plus blockbuster material equals critical and commercial success via some strange alchemy?
Whatever the reasoning it was certainly a risky move. Wright admits during his commentary that he knew nothing of “the formal craft of making an action film” before embarking on Hanna and that he essentially learnt as he went along, progressing from one set-piece to the next. This perhaps explains the somewhat haphazard approach whereby he seems unable to stick to one specific style. The famed one-take from Atonement makes a re-appearance - twice - for a key flashback and a spot of Bana fisticuffs (although this latter scene may involve a bit of editing suite trickery), whilst other sequences adopt a more off-kilter method taking in distorted compositions and equally skew-whiff choices of edit. In all cases you could dub the style as overt given the manner in they draw attention to themselves, but understandably it also means that some sequences work better than others.
Had Hanna been, say, a more straightforward thriller punctuated by two or three ‘big’ action scenes then this wouldn’t have proven so problematic. However, this is a film which is driven by its set-pieces and, generally speaking, has little between them. The storytelling is generally perfunctory and ultimately doesn’t really matter; even Wright admits in the commentary that certain elements were just MacGuffins and there simply as a means of making it from one scene (read set-piece) to the next. Indeed, taking a close look at the developments and revelations does them no favours: they either make very little sense or show themselves to be rather flimsy. An early, and therefore spoiler-less, example: when Hanna decides that she wants to go back into the real world she does so by flicking a switch that alerts Blanchett’s CIA agent to her and her father’s whereabouts. No reason is given and whilst, arguably, we can insert our own theories behind this particular development, ultimately it seems to have been included primarily as a means of instigating the narrative.
With that said such a lean approach to the storytelling side does result in an extremely pacey work. Powered on by its excellent Chemical Brothers score (their first), Hanna certainly does fly by. Indeed, any flimsiness doesn’t matter all that much as we’re given very little time to actually dwell on anything. As soon as a new character is introduced or a plot point clarified slightly we’re straight into the next big action sequence: another foiled capture attempt, another narrow escape, another feat of superhuman prowess by either Hanna or her papa. The closest we get to a pause is during those fleeting moments of non-violence, although even here Wright ensures that some quirky idea or action gets in on the picture. There’s a brief interlude involving a sing-along to David Bowie’s Kooks and there’s the various British actors adorning the supporting casts who are, each and every one, a little off-centre: Jason Flemyng and Olivia Williams as hippy-ish parents holidaying in Morocco; Tom Hollander’s transsexual-stripbar-owning assassin with ‘bovver boy’ sidekicks and a taste for appalling tracksuits.
Of course, this throwing of ideas at the screen is much the same as Wright’s approach to the action sequences and yields the same results - sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Hollander makes a habit out of flamboyant cameo performances (see also Maybe Baby, Paparazzi, Pride & Prejudice, his Pirates of the Caribbean appearances, et al), but it proves really quite effective here. Conversely, Blanchett’s southern drawl feels like a massive mistake and is wholly distracting throughout. As with so many of Hanna’s ideas there’s no real justification for it, and as with so many of the stylistic touches it really draws attention to itself, which makes it all the more galling. Indeed, the only reason I could apply is that it ups the comic book nature of the film, but then even this is something that is never coherently (or completely) adhered to throughout.
The one idea that Wright does firmly affix himself to for the duration is the idea that Hanna is a modern day fairytale. Unfortunately, it’s also an idea that he overplays a huge amount. Inklings are there from the start courtesy of that log cabin and the snowy Finnish landscape of the opening scenes. Arguably it isn’t too subtle, but then it also isn’t excessively pointed out either. However, as Hanna develops further this looks to be as subtle as Wright can get with subsequent scenes taking place a theme park containing a literal fairytale house and, most heavy-handed of all, villainess Blanchett coming out of a giant’s wolf’s head as she pursues her prey. The in-between points represent an ever-increasing upswing in obviousness to the point where you almost feel the urge to tick off the various nods and clues.
This unsubtle approach is just another element whose presence becomes questionable. Why has Wright decided to go overboard on a fairly simplistic idea and to the point where it elicits nothing more than a groan? Perhaps he wasn’t fully comfortable with the fact he was making an action movie and thus decided to focus more readily on some kind of subtext in a vain attempt at depth. I’m inclined to agree with this assessment and, if true, I do wonder why he went to such lengths. Ultimately Hanna is just an action movie - a succession of set-pieces - and is far too flimsy to entertain any such adornments. It simply needs to provide those set-pieces in as enjoyable a fashion as possible before moving onto the next one. At times this is exactly what Wright does, at others he fudges it simply by trying too much. Maybe what Hanna really requires is a hack at the helm, a journeyman director who would see the film for what it was and deliver solely on those grounds. This could very well result in a work that was no better or worse than the latest Tony Scott, say, but then perhaps it wouldn’t be quite so frustrating as Joe Wright’s Hanna is. Great pace, great score, some great performances (and I’ve neglected to mention Ronan’s fine central performance until this point) and some great moments. But also some half-arsed moments, some half-arsed ideas, some misjudged performances and some misjudged direction. Wright is about to commence filming on his next project over the coming weeks, an new adaptation of Anna Karenina scripted by Tom Stoppard. Much safer ground I’m sure you’ll agree, so perhaps he realises his folly.
Universal have issued Hanna as a standalone DVD and ‘Triple Play’ DVD, Blu-ray and Digital Copy combi-pack in either standard or ‘steelbook’ packaging. (See the news item here for full details.) For review purposes a copy of the Blu-ray disc was supplied and this is what shall be considered below.
Playable on all regions the Blu-ray looks really rather wonderful and houses a few extras not available on the standard DVD. Presenting the film in a ratio of 2.35:1, here we find an AVC encode copes perfectly well with Hanna’s globetrotting and is equally comfortable with the Finnish fairytale snowscapes as it is Morocco’s climes on the opposite end of the spectrum. Detail is consistently high, skin tones appear correct and black levels just as you would expect them. Note that any discrepancies are down to the film’s shifts in style (the key flashback scene, for example, is intentionally softer) and not a side-effect of the disc’s production. As for the soundtrack, here we find a 5.1 DTS-HD rendering that similarly impresses: dialogue is crisp and clear and never once overwhelmed by the Chemical Brothers score which binds nicely with the SFX to barely discernible effect. All told, an excellent presentation.
Extras amount to a handful of mostly brief featurettes, another handful of deleted scenes (including an alternative ending) and a commentary by Wright. The latter is the meatiest of the bunch and sees the director attempt to cram as much information in as he possibly can. However, as he admits early on, the film does go by rather quickly and as such he does struggle to say everything he wants to at particular moments. In one respect this does at least keep the track flowing - Wright barely ever seems to pause for breath - but then it also means that he rarely gets into any depth. The Bowie track, for example, is there simply because he’s a big Bowie fan; the flashback scene reminds him vaguely of European cinema but he can’t put his finger on exactly why - and neither does he have the time to ponder as he’s swiftly onto the next scene, moment, detail, what-have-you. This scantiness afflicts the featurettes too given their brisk running time (one of them, ‘The Wild World of Hanna’, is just two minutes long!). Each is essentially a mix of B-roll footage and interview material roughly shoe-horned into thematic packages although this doesn’t always work. The one entitled ‘Central Intelligence Allegory’, for example, starts out talking about the CIA, but then moves onto the fairytale elements, the storyboarding process and more besides. Indeed, it’s hard not to wish that these various pieces were simply assembled into one larger, more coherent piece that was easier to get a handle of. That way, hopefully, you could also remove all of the EPK-style fluff that adorns each and every one of these minutes-long additions. The only exception to this is the ‘Anatomy of a Scene’ piece which essentially finds Wright delivering another commentary, albeit only for the three-minute duration of the sequence in question and so, once again, with the same problems of scantiness that affects the extras elsewhere. As for the deleted scenes, here we find three which build slightly on the Morocco passages (totalling just under four minutes) and a minute-and-a-half alternate ending which is slightly tidier than the one in the finished film, but needlessly so.