I didn’t think Joe Wright had it in him. In Hanna he leaves behind the polite literary pieces he’s known for – he directed Atonement and the Keira Knightley Pride and Prejudice – and comes through with a thrilling action movie about a teenaged girl trained to kill. He hasn’t entirely lost his literary roots, though. Hanna, played with ferocity and thorough conviction by Saoirse Ronan, is metaphorically a fairy tale princess updated to a contemporary superheroine.
Ronan (The Lovely Bones) surprises us here too. Despite her ethereal looks, Hanna is no delicate flower. We first see her shooting an arrow at a reindeer across a barren snowy landscape, then carving out its guts.
She has been raised in isolation by her father, Erik (Eric Bana) in a tiny cottage in Finland, where Hanna has a photo of her dead mother tucked inside an old copy of Grimm’s fairy tales (see, I’m not inventing the princess part). Erik has protected her from mysterious sinister agents who have been after her since birth, and has taught her the kind of self-defense that keeps spies in business. “Remember what I told you,” he says, and she repeats the motto she lives by, which happens to suit both James Bond and Snow White: “Adapt or die.”
Hanna puts herself out in the world – the only way to thwart her enemies is to bait and destroy them – and begins running around like some junior version of Angelina Jolie in Salt, figuring out an ingenious way to escape from a high-security bunker, wandering through a desert. Along the way she sends Dad a reassuring postcard reading simply, “The witch is dead.” And we soon find out that the CIA is somehow involved (isn’t it always?)
I’ve found Wright’s literary adaptations competent, pretty, and never as moving as they should be. But his coolness works here, and he displays an unexpected flair for large landscapes and zooming action, which never flags. Hanna may be a fairy tale princess who has to save herself from danger, but Wright doesn’t lean on the analogy too hard. Even a big climactic action scene, a shootout at the Wilhelm Grimm house in Berlin, uses the location as an effectively creepy funhouse more than a symbolic point.
A superbly natural actress, Ronan makes every one of Hanna’s improbable ploys seem like things she just cooked up, even when they involve murder and vengeance. And The Chemical Brothers’ soundtrack adds just the right contemporary electronic charge for this new kind of action movie. The only weak element – and I’m shocked to be saying this – is Cate Blanchett as Marissa, a CIA agent who is hunting Hanna. From the Southern accent that fades in and out to the terrible wig, nothing works for her here; this may be the only time I’ve seen a performance of hers fail.
Wright has talked about making Anna Karenina his next film, but Hanna is such a satisfying thriller maybe he should reconsider. Or at least have Anna leaping on the train, shooting her enemies, leaving her old life behind like the literary superheroine she is.
Hanna opens on April 8th. Here’s the slick but accurate trailer.