Hanna Heller (Saoirse Ronan) was brought up in the Arctic wilderness of Finland by her father, Erik Heller (Eric Bana), who taught her to kill or be killed, to “adapt…or die”. Hanna has never been exposed to the modern world and her knowledge of humanity extends to that of Grimm Brothers fairy tales and the knowledge taught to her by her father from the pages of a dusty old encyclopedia. Yet, although Hanna is only a teenager, her time has come to leave her cabin in the forest and kill the woman she has been trained to assassinate, the big bad “witch” of the CIA, Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett).
We eventually learn that Hanna’s fighting skills are not only due to her fathers handed down CIA training, but also to the assistance of DNA manipulation, opening the story up to controversial conspiracies of human farming and genetic engineering. We learn that this project did not go as planned for the CIA and Erik chose to flee with the evidence, much to the alarm of Marissa Wiegler, who was trying to cover up the mess.
Cate Blanchett plays the unforgiving corrupt character of Marissa, with such ease that we almost sympathise for the plight of her character. Or at least begin to question her underlying motives. She has perfected the evil villain role so well in the past, with characters such as KGB agent Col. Dr. Irina Spalko in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Grey Skull. Proving that for some reason we like to see Cate in the anti-hero seat.
During Hanna’s quest, she meets a young family travelling across Morocco. The most notable character of which is a young girl named Sophie (Jessica Barden), Hanna's first real friend who shows her what teenage girls get up to, with some hilarious consequences. It’s a shame that their friendship dynamic wasn’t explored more, as the close interpersonal experiences of being a teenage girl would surely be one of the things that her character would struggle with the most. Instead the storyline chooses to focus on a ruthless Hanna running for her survival, with some well-choreographed fight scenes scattered throughout. The fight scenes were well supplemented by an exceptional surrealist score by The Chemical Brothers. The soundtrack combines modern synth, progressive beats and haunting vocals, to make for an effectively thrilling modern action-sci-fi score that truly works well within the context of the film and also independently as a provocative and complete album.
I’m undecided as to whether the clean violence in Hanna serves it well, especially with a PG 13 rating. The violence is real and the themes are dark, however, it seems as though they have been tamed unnecessarily for the benefit of a younger audience. Apparently Alfonso Cuaron and Danny Boyle were both considered to direct Hanna until Ronan recommended that Joe Wright do the honours. I can only imagine the very different tone that the film could have had with Boyle or Cuaron in the driver’s seat. For starters, they may have exercised more fantasy and science fiction elements to the film as opposed to the resulting predominantly thriller based structure. Also, the potential fantasy moments that are hinted throughout Hanna could have been explored further. For example, she has to leave her secluded cabin in the woods and get to Grimm’s house before the evil witch captures her. The fantasy themes are there, but they just aren’t pushed far enough to make a lasting impression of awe on the audience.
Some of the most striking sequences were shot in the abandoned amusement park in Berlin. This added a touch of fantasy and a surreal eerie quality to the film that made it all the more memorable to view. One particular shot of Marissa emerging out of a tunnel will remain imprinted in the back of the mind for some time, perhaps to consider the hidden meanings behind the imagery of the big bad wolf and the wicked witch. The scenes with Eric Bana and Saoirse Ronan in Finland are also quite exquisite and serve well in demonstrating the painfully harsh conditions that Hanna was trained in. If she could handle the blistering cold of the Arctic, then she can handle her fate in the civilised world.
There are many similarities in genre and story style to that of revenge thrillers such as the Kill Bill films, The Bourne Identity and Run Lola Run. However, Hanna really tries to experiment with genre limitations. Hanna isn’t a fantasy/art-house film, per see, but an action flick, with a touch of sci-fi, but not much more. The obvious targeting of the “art-house” fantasy-action fusion genre fails its fickle audiences scruple tastes by inevitably being too self-aware. Audiences know the supposed “art-house” formula when they see it, and it just comes off as fraudulent.
I would have liked to see the film decide on a theme and take it further, whether that theme is the influence of the Brothers Grimm Fairy tales or the reasons behind the genetic engineering. Either way, interesting concepts were flirted with but not wholly explored. Topics like genetic engineering would have been much more compelling if they were explained in more than a fleeting two minute conversation. Instead we just get hints to DNA abnormalities and a passing conspiracy based explanation. Perhaps some flashbacks to the testing stages of the project would have given the audience a little bit more than just hints as to what was happening, and we really do want to know. Instead the audience leaves the film with not that much at all, but the feeling that it was an equally good-looking and thrilling fun ride.
This review originally appeared in Machete Girl, Issue 5, "Dessert Punk", pp. 29-31.