Hanna is a ferocious little number whose sole purpose seems to be to satisfy action blockbuster requirements whilst simultaneously advertising the coolness of all things German. It’s tapping into a little revival of industrial music, synths and desert boots in a true Krautophiliac spirit. It’s perfect for those audiences who are just catching on to the appeal of 80’s electro and Bauhaus design, yet can’t manage subtitles, German leads or independent cinema just yet. It has a big-name cast, big budget, well choreographed fight scenes and enjoyed great publicity with a rollicking trailer, yet somehow manages to combine these with a European visual sensibility.
When we meet the pale and beautiful Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) in her sixteenth year, living an isolated existence in the snowy wilderness of Northern Finland. Raised by her father (Eric Bana) to be the perfect assassin, she has never encountered the outside world, hearing about it only in stories as though it were a kind of fiction. Her hunting skills are formidable; she’s tireless, capable of flooring a grown man; her robotic memory stores fairtytales, false identities, weapons handling; and she rocks ‘moose fur chic’ to perfection (I’m currently searching eBay for elk legwarmers in my size). When her father unearths a satellite beacon, Hanna finally gives up her wintery idyll and embarks on a bloody revenge mission against intelligence operative Marissa Wiegler (a ginger Cate Blanchett with dubious Southern accent).
Ever since Darude released that pesky trance favourite ‘Feel The Beat’ in 2000 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mN84To5ndw0, and sorry), I have been particularly sore about the commonness and mal-realisation of the chase concept in music videos. It’s too easy! Being a regular jogger, I am well aware that you can run to nearly any music, but few songs make you run any faster. Stock standard action sequences are often the go-to accompaniment for whichever three minutes of gratifyingly punchy dance music has made it onto Video Hits due to overplay at your local EuroBar.
I didn’t anticipate I’d be reminded of this music video chase-scene dilemma whilst watching Hanna. Hanna is a fairly structureless film in which numerous song-length fight and chase scenes set to “ass-kicking” music by the Chemical Brothers are strung together like a clumsy (but colourful) pasta necklace. The soundtrack is anaemic, never generating any tension or reaching the heights it could have. It goes for the ‘Eye of the Tiger’ treatment (bangin’ beats to let us know something badass is happening), when it could really have created an atmosphere akin to what we hear in 28 Weeks Later. Perhaps Kraftwerk and the Prodigy were simply busy?
These action vignettes do look good, though. Each piece is set in a unique and richly realised location, involving strong art direction, set decoration, brilliant lighting and perhaps the best camerawork I’ve seen this year. German cinematographer Alwin H. Kuchler performs truly hypnotic feats with close-ups, selective soft-focus, hand-held and point-of-view. Every scene is genuinely beautiful, though apparently just for its own sake. There’s little plot-based explanation for any of it: something something, avenge mother, something something, genetically modified super soldier. My question must obviously be; does it matter? Is Hanna cool or stylish enough for the plot to become secondary?
It certainly seems that Saoirse Ronan’s looks, more than her acting (the part of unblinking killer isn’t exactly Shakespearean, let’s be honest) are what provide the character of Hanna with her credulity. Her porcelain complexion and white-blond hair are calling out to be splattered with the blood of unfortunate foot soldiers. Her youth and emergent femininity is what precludes her combative prowess. In short, her beauty is an ambush. It could be said that the whole film works in this manner. Eric Bana’s Heller performs his greatest character transformation by shaving and slipping into a suit; Weigler’s past is elicited most strongly by her choice of velveteen pump and the way her accent seems to shift with the breeze. Even Ronan’s most involved emotional feat is a totally non-verbal scene in which Hanna encounters electrical appliances and their rhythmic noises for the first time. Hanna’s visual majesty tells the story better than the dialogue itself, which is indeed sparse and peppered with classic action exchanges:
“Is she what you imagined?”
Then: “No. She’s better.”
So whilst the film is certainly no contender for Best Script, it does a singular job of telling the story using physical and visual symbolism.
The principle leitmotif of Hanna is the girl warrior’s understanding of fiction and fairy-tale. She grows up reading Grimm fables in a climate not unlike the stories themselves: a wintery forest filled with stags, wolves and peril. Like we all do, Hanna dreams of leaving what she considers to be the real world in order to enter a strange, magical new universe to battle evil and see magic. Once she leaves home, it is the outside world that resembles her ideal fictional wonderland, making her blinkered dedication to her quest resemble folklore all the more. Whilst this narrative thread is tantalising as a concept, it is applied with a rather broad brush throughout the film, especially when Hanna encounters “Grimm”, and ex-clown at a safe house in the shape of a the proverbial Old Woman’s shoe, and later when she takes a path overhung literally by the mouth of a wolf.
Whilst this all sounds good and swashbuckling the success of Hanna begins to unravel over weaknesses in the plot and the way the film has been assembled. Hanna’s mission simply gets repetitive. Further, the characters include a number of jarringly over-caricatured roles. Namely, a German hitman (played by great villain-specialist Tom Hollander) with a penchant for golfing pastels (á la ‘Funny Games’) and a vacuous British tween whose complaints and tasteless bikini would be more at home on Little Britain. One scene reads like a bad joke: “Two neo-Nazis, a Hilfiger-clad gangster, a babysitter and a virgin assassin walk into a shipping yard…”.
In the end, the style over substance debate is one I can happily leave on the shelf. Hanna feels like one of those rare successful compromises: It’s a slick entry-level film for those whose normal diet consists mostly of Bruce Willis and Dwayne Johnson flicks, and who have trouble making it through the ‘festival’ DVD their girlfriend brought home. For those with a taste for independent cinema, this is a familiar yet palatable take on the splendour of violence, leaning heavily on symbolic storytelling: what lovers say with flowers, Hanna says with an improvised crossbow.