Hanna (2011, Joe Wright)
As is probably not hard to discern from the top 10 lists linked above, straight thrillers are my favorite genre — those in the vein of Hitchcock’s most towering works, anyway — but aside from Adrian Lyne’s tits-and-cash subcategory, they’ve dried up in recent decades, at least within the American mainstream. The closest anyone comes is in things like Michael Mann’s nocturnal action dramas, David Fincher’s filmed missives of dread, and a choice oddity like The Bourne Supremacy that fuses the Hitchcockian idiosyncrasy and forcefulness with a more modernist and fantastic framework of espionate and intrigue, amping up the idea of all this baseline entertainment as a form of escapism. Joe Wright’s flamboyantly stylish Hanna is a culmination of all these notions, thoroughly of its time yet sincerely a callback to a period when the idea of an action or sci-fi picture, especially a visually dazzling one, did not preclude a human core. Wright’s film is a setpiece-driven cacophony of gimmicks, but can we really get angry at a Hollywood movie in 2011 for being too excited about its own cinematic possibilities? No, we can’t, especially when it boasts the sense of life and urgency of Hitchcock himself.
That’s inconsistently achieved, but how stirring when it comes off! Hanna gets so much right and is often brilliant — using silent film techniques and rhythmically alternating between visual subtleties and a rage of color and sound, it follows a genetically engineered girl (Saoirse Ronan) under the protection of her father (Eric Bana) in a remote, unpopulated Arctic territory. Hanna’s been in training for years to exact vengeance upon a woman responsible for her mother’s death; as soon as she’s ready, in perfect cinematic fashion, a button is pressed and all hell breaks loose, and we’re off on the covert voyage ’round the world with Hanna to destroy a clear evil and assert her own power and individuality, with her father to ward off obstacles and remotely try and protect his offspring as much as ever — but now with the delicious irony that her literal self-discovery and adolescence must find her pushing him away. The story is just vague enough to let us investigate and speculate over its emotional (even Freudian!) undercurrents, with its exposition arrived at organically and no interjection that the MacGuffin on a sheet of paper is what really matters here; that completeness of design is invigorating.
In perfect 39 Steps and North by Northwest fashion, Hanna’s journey and the pursual of her by Cate Blanchett’s genuinely creepy-crawly Marissa take us to emotional and aural places hard to describe; think of the archiectural wonders of NXNW or the missing-finger man and the farming couple in Steps. Each new character and place we meet in Hanna offers fascinations and visual opportunities that individually provide enough content for entire small films, like a series of episodes in a larger creation. The fraught emotional damage in the face of Hanna’s grandmother is witnessed and discarded but leaves a scar; the Willy Wonka-like safe haven of Spree Park is something of a psychological children’s paradise as the scene for Hanna’s final transformation to an adult; and how many action thrillers in 2011-13 would be smart enough to craft a set of characters so fully developed and fascinating as the family with whom Hanna tags along for a time, changing the entire flavor of the narrative? The performances are all superb from big roles to smallest (someone please give Olivia Williams a starring role in something); my slight problem with Cate Blanchett’s bizarre accent is forgiven by her and her cronies’ still-fascinating portrayals simply offering a James Mason/Marty Landau counterpoint to the weight and subtlety we get from Bana and especially Ronan, who’s phenomenal. The characters are taken seriously despite the preposterous nature of the plot, a lesson Hitchcock learned decades ago that so many subsequent filmmakers have ignored. Every major character here is a sophisticated concoction, even those clearly marked by the film as “evil.” They have charms, weakness, reasons for being. It seems like so dramatically basic a requirement but it’s a true joy to see so much that’s so classically well-controlled.
Something else that’s unusual and shouldn’t be, something perhaps most important of all: I can’t stress enough what a relief it is that the action sequences in this packed-with-content thriller make sense and are entirely coherent — often played in lengthy, stunningly balletic takes, like the one that has Ronan fighting a band of baddies while her new friend Sophie (Jessica Barden) looks on slack-jawed, or the magnificently elaborate long take in the subway station culminating with the underrated Bana forever sealing his badassery with the throw of a knife. (Some of the fight sequences do go on a bit, of course, but I always start to doze off in fight scenes so perhaps that’s not the movie’s fault.) That’s just the most obvious manifestation of the bracing level of imagination Wright exhibits here, in treating this script like a Gaumont Hitchcock but shooting it like A Clockwork Orange, a truly artful and mercilessly fast-paced hyperspace trip of batshit design and audacious directorial choices, thumping along to the Chemical Brothers’ glorious soundtrack (not that it’s relevant here, but their best work in years).
And okay, Wright does go berserk here and there, and I have some objections early on to some of the pointlessly goofball split-screen effects and MTV camera angles, which seem to play into trends rather than playing with them, but like many other small distractions this is offset thoroughly by how many classically beautiful shots and moments Wright captures, heavily informed by his fixation upon eyes, which helps reel us in to this film’s cathartic and emotional world. He has a bag of tricks, a whole mess of crazy things that might not seem to belong in the same movie, but he knows when to use each one; watch how the angular menace (an unmistakable Clockwork riff) of the eerie interrogation scene, which may or may not spell the friendly family’s doom, offsets the hazy romance of the scenes of Hanna and Sophie just being teenage girls, lovingly and sensitively portrayed by the actors and Wright. The takeaway is that this is a filmmaker high on the joys of storytelling; you don’t have to tell me how imperative it is that I see his other works now. I’m way ahead of you. Because it’s not often I feel this much immediate kinship with a film’s entire sense of purpose; since about an hour after I watched it, I’ve been itching to see it again and I can’t wait to do so.