There’s one type of film that great directors make: great films. They aren’t hemmed in by genre. You may have seen Joe Wright’s previous films - Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, The Soloist - and thought you knew who he was and what kind of movies he could make, but if you were pigeon-holing him in a niche, you were wrong. With Hanna, as good an action movie as anyone has made in the last ten years, Wright proves that he’s not going to be stuck in some sort of artsy-fartsy, vaguely chick film box.
Which is funny because Hanna is kind of artsy-fartsy and more than vaguely a chick film, but it’s one that kicks so much ass, is so exciting and thrilling and awesome, that many folks might simply miss the fact that Wright didn’t just make a really good action film, he made a really good film, with resonant themes about growing up and characters who are defined beyond their ability to kill with their bare hands.
It’s hard to picture Eric Bana as a stand up comic, which was a previous job of his. Once again Bana plays a no-nonsense badass, striding through Hanna with a grim sense of purpose and paternal regret. Once a CIA operative, Bana has left it all behind, retreating to a forest above the Arctic Circle with his young daughter. There he trains her in survival and murder, but very little in life.
Saoirse Ronan, a universe away from her passive, milquetoast character in The Lovely Bones, is brilliantly feral yet vulnerable as Hanna. In the woods she is unstoppable, but soon the time comes for her to continue her life outside the wild; in the real world she discovers that the hardest part may not be getting hunted down by CIA assassins but having to figure out the signals when a boy tries to kiss you.
Why is Hanna hunted by assassins? That’s the film’s big reveal, which isn’t much of a reveal at all. Wright wisely plays down this part of Seth Lochhead and David Farr’s script; while there is an explanation you sense that the movie would rather you see it in fairy tale archetypes - Hanna is being chased by an Evil Witch. In this case the Evil Witch is Cate Blanchett, looking all sorts of Agent Scully and flossing her teeth with masochistic abandon. Blanchett brings remarkable controlled fury to the performance, a violence that is so often turned inward that it’s doubly scary to imagine it turned outward. But she also brings a layer of humanity to a character who could have been two dimensionally evil - the Wicked Witch is bad, but just because she fucked up and now she’s trying to make it all better.
The other standout actor who I must discuss is Tom Hollander. You’ve seen Hollander plenty before, but never like this; slimy, weasely, creepy, deeply evil - he’s unbelievable as Isaacs, the freelance killer to whom Blanchett turns. Hollander is perfect in an iconic villain role, a character who straddles creepy and silly with graceful balance, making him all the more sinister. Hollander more or less steals the movie.
But the reality is that the star of the film is Joe Wright. Wright has never been afraid to be up front with his style, and an action film allows him even more opportunity to flex. As an outsider to the action genre, Wright doesn’t feel beholden to modern convention, and so he’s free to be inventive and make the action feel fresh. Even a chase through shipping containers - about the most hackneyed location for an action sequence - is freshened by Wright’s approach. He sees the containers as toy blocks, the characters weaving between them, creating a deadly play area. He brings the film’s themes into the action.
He also brings his trademark Steadicam shot. He’s kind of become known for bravura Steadicam shots, and he takes the opportunity to up the ante with Hanna. There is a fight scene in a subway - Bana against a half dozen assailants - that unfolds in one long, circling, clear Steadicam shot. It is an action scene that will make action fans all but weep; Wright has broken free of the post-Greengrass monotony of the shaky cam (which, when used right, does work, but is now just used lazily, without meaning and as a cheat for actual filmmaking) and shown that actors kicking ass convincingly is incredibly thrilling. And you are very convinced that Eric Bana can do all that he does.
Wright plays the fairy tale angle a little heavily, but it’s made up for in remarkably human scenes, such as when Hanna joins a family on vacation and discovers what regular little girls talk about (themselves, TV actors, boys, themselves, etc). Every action scene is offset by a couple of human, emotional scenes, making Hanna’s journey - towards adulthood, towards self-discovery - feel completely earned. You don’t have to sacrifice character and storytelling for great action.
And the fairy tale stuff does pay off in one of the most beautiful set pieces in memory; the final confrontation takes place in an abandoned theme park based on Hans Christian Anderson’s works, and while the thematic imagery is on the nose, the cinematic aspect of that imagery is often breath-taking. It’s here that Wright ultimately shows his hand as a character director first; the final battle could have been bigger, but he opts to wage it on a more personal, smaller and emotional level. There’s a lot of very particular symbolism in where the bad guy takes final blow.
Finally there’s the score by the Chemical Brothers. Daft Punk got everybody excited with their Tron: Legacy score, which is really great, but which sounds like a remix of a standard Hans Zimmer factory score (and if Hollywood whispers are to be believed that is indeed what a large amount of that soundtrack is). But the score by the Chemical Brothers is a real Chemical Brothers score, something that sounds like it could be just a Chemical Brothers record. It’s propulsive and awesome and just slightly dated in a perfect way - after all, Wright’s conceit that you can make an action movie that’s just as much about characters as action is a conceit that fell out of favor thirty years ago, so why not have some late 90s electronic sounds on the soundtrack.
Hanna is the sort of movie that gives you faith in action films as not just ass-kicking or fun rides but as actual cinema, movies that have stories and characters and beautiful cinematography and thematic meaning AND also mind-blasting fights and chases. It’s the kind of movie that leaves you remembering why you love movies.