Sometimes the ideas of a bunch of clever, imaginative people can come together to make a mélange so holistic that film writers get to use broad simplifications like auteurism. And sometimes they don’t.
Sometimes the whole thing just collapses into a giant lumpy mess. And so it is with Hanna, a movie as determinedly unique as it is completely broken.
Hanna Heller (Saoirse Ronan) has a pretty regular life: wake up, hunt deer, fight herself out of a grown man’s stranglehold, practice six languages over dinner. The usual. But one day her father, Erik (Eric Bana), tells her that it’s about time she see the world. Meet some people, get some real-life experience, that kinda stuff. The catch? As soon as she leaves their isolated cabin they’ll be on the run from Erik’s former handler Marissa (Cate Blanchett), who’s been hunting them for years. And she won’t stop coming. Not until they’re dead.
So the setup’s pretty simple. Hit Girl plus La Femme Nikita. And you’d think the script would fall into place as simply: Hanna is badaass, Hanna meets people, Hanna goes through awkward culture clash comedy, villains display evilness and determination through brutal unnecessary violence, someone close to Hanna dies, plot twist about Hanna’s origins, Hanna is badass again, fade to black, credits, etc. But no. The filmmakers aren’t exactly interested in a simple movie.
Which is valid. This is well-trod ground and throwing a bunch of talented people at it will probably just lead to a bunch of bored talented people. So I have no problem with the filmmakers’ attempts to spice up the situation a bit. No, my problem is when each element of the production seems to have grabbed whatever spice they found first on the rack, regardless of how well it would mix. And so Hanna is filled with things that mean something to whoever put them in but are incomprehensible when taken together.
And it doesn’t help that the script has little to no forward momentum. Sure, Hanna travels from Morocco to Germany to reunite with her father, but there’s no particular urgency to the journey because the final goal is never made clear. What’ll happen if they reach Germany? There doesn’t seem to be a more significant plan. So the movie turns into a travelogue where Hanna moves from place to place, reacts to people/modern day things, there’s an action/chase scene and then we move on. And this might work if the script was treating Hanna’s journey as a character arc, but Hanna herself remains a constant. In fact a significant portion of the movie’s scenes are set up to take advantage of the specificity of Hanna’s character. So the movie doesn’t so much flow as stumble when the only through line is the chase. And there’s problems with that too.
Instead of pitting Hanna against Marissa in a battle of brains and brawn, Cate Blanchett’s character is mostly focused on tracking down Erik. And so the actual chasing bit falls to Tom Hollander’s German mercenary. He’s blonde and sexually deviant, so, you know, German. He’s recruited by Marissa extra-legally for his “skills”. Unfortunately his skillset seems to consist of hiring Neo-Nazis and chasing people at a reasonable distance. I kept waiting for the character to come into his own with the characteristically nasty scene where the secondary villain does something particularly impressive and cruel. But no. Hollander isn’t given much material at all.
The problem with our primary antagonist, Marissa, isn’t that she’s not given anything to do. No, Blanchett gets some character detail. Not a lot, but some. No, the problem is that Blanchett is giving one of her absolutely worst performances. Weighed down by a random Southern twang, Blanchett plays the handler as odd and inhuman. And this is often Cate Blanchett’s thing. But this go around finds her making all the wrong choices: heightening her performance in scenes that can’t bear the added theatricality and underplaying others so that you can’t enjoy the hammy scenery chewing. It’s all over the place. And it’s compounded by the surprisingly significant amount of time the film devotes to her backstory with Erik. It’s a go-nowhere bit of plot and Blanchett doesn’t help it. But I’m loath to put all of the blame on her. Somebody clearly needed to guide her towards a more appropriate performance. But nobody seems to have bothered.
Certainly not director Joe Wright who’s attention seems to be set on two things: a fairytale conceit that seems to be going somewhere but doesn’t, and the action scenes. And these action scenes are probably the most successful bits of Hanna. With the help of editor and the Chemical Brothers’ score Wright crafts some interesting set pieces: Hanna’s escape, her reaction to a modern room, the shipping containers chase, Eric Bana’s hand-to-hand massacre. All of these scenes work in the moment as the different production elements align to portray a single vision. And they work. Sure, they exist in isolation and would probably work like gangbusters if they were slotted into a more functional narrative. But they work. And they’re interesting.
So here is where I stop bashing the movie and turn to some backhanded praise. At the very least, this movie is kinda fun. As someone whose taste in movies skews towards the artsy and strange, I tend to like strange movies much more than I like mediocre ones. And Hanna is kind of endearing in its off kilter of idea of plot, character and conventional narrative. It’s just a big ball of goof. And if you don’t get caught up in its more heinous aberrations (*cough*Blanchett*cough*) it can be a bunch of silly curveball fun. And the genre trappings help a lot actually. Every time you think the movie’s going to zig it goes off on a diversion to Morocco. It’s not every movie that would have the first humans Hanna encounters post-captivity be a new age-y international family and then drop them completely once the movie’s run out of uses for them. There’s an undeniable kookiness to it all and if you tilt your head and kinda squint you can end up going with its weird energy.
And there’s at least on undeniably great element in this whole mishmash and that’s Saiorse Ronan in the lead role. The role’s a steep ask of any young actor but Ronan rises to the challenge with a perfectly moderated bit of fey alienness. Hanna is technically human, but her entire upbringing has been focused on designing the perfect bit of organic weaponry. The result is a fiercely unmodulated person with a raw, open intensity that makes every conversation seem like it might end up wither adorably awkward or brutally murderous. It’s absolutely fantastic and lends a sizzle of uncertain energy to the proceedings that goes surprisingly well with the anything-goes nature of the plot. The actor’s screen presence is even magnetic enough to make the confused through line of Hanna’s emotional journey fall into place and elevates the movie to fairly watchable territory. It’s magnificent performance and incredibly promising for her future roles (none of which I’ve seen). It almost makes the movie worthwhile.
But ultimately I can’t give Hanna a blanket recommendation/condemnation. It’s not good, but it is very unusual. And if one is willing to step outside the spectrum of the good (well made) and bad (poorly made) to embrace the particular frisson of an interesting movie, you could have a jolly fun time.