You could say that Joe Wright is an energetic director. You wouldn’t be wrong, but you also wouldn’t want to go so far as to compare him to a guy like Danny Boyle, who approaches every shot like he’s directing the X-games. But Wright has certainly established a style, and seems to be honing it in his latest, Hanna. This style is built on a fluid mix of a number of different approaches. Wright often employs deep, throbbing club music in his action, nearly taking away any of the diegetic sound. He also likes to keep his cameras close to his actors and hold his cuts as long as possible, giving the impression that there is always something just off-camera ready to strike. And though he has no problem picking up the pace of his films, Wright is just as prepared to slow things way, way down. What culminates in these choices is a style of filmmaking that never truly allows you to relax. For a film that deals with a 16-year-old girl entering the world for the first time and kicking a whole lot of ass, this could be the most effective choice in a barrel full of good ones.
Hanna Heller (Saoirse Ronan) was raised in the Finnish wilderness by her father Erik (Eric Bana), to be an assassin. Specifically her target is, and has always been, Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), the woman who killed her mother. Though alarmingly capable in some ways, Hanna is in so many other ways still a child, and her journey through our world is as terrifying to her as you might imagine it to be. Pairing her ignorance with her new position as a wanted criminal, Hanna is in perhaps the least desirable situation a 16-year-old girl could find herself in. And while the film is about her immediate perils, it is just as much as about what it means to be a new teenager, and making your way in this enormous, unpredictable world, all by yourself.
Saoirse Ronan is perfectly cast as Hanna. The performance is good, if a little one-note, but it is Ronan’s appearance and bearing that bring the character fully into focus. Hanna’s character is so alien to this world, and this world is so alien to her, it makes sense that she would appear so androgynous and bewildered. Ronan’s face runs a whole gambit of ages in the film, from sheer violence to utter innocence. Hanna spends many scenes simply walking in a daze from one puzzlement to the next, taking in as much as her hard drive can hold. Wright even devotes time to the inevitable discoveries of sexuality and physical affection, in two distinctly different moments that illuminate some of Hanna’s waxing humanity.
As for the two other key performances, Eric Bana is solid if not a bit underused, and Cate Blanchett is, yet again, excellent. She plays one of her rare villainous roles and does so expertly. Wiegler has a teeth-cleaning addiction that is used to express the character’s sterility and obsessive qualities. Her environments are always gray and sterile, wholly opposite from the more natural backdrops Hanna often finds herself in. And as far as playing up the nuclear family relationship between the three leads, Wright does a good enough job. He occasionally strays into one-liners that bring a laugh but take you out of the moment. When Hanna tells Marissa to leave her alone and turns to retreat (as 16-year-olds are wont to do), Weigler raises her gun, warning, “Don’t you turn your back on me, young lady!” These minor attempts to make the figurative dynamic more clear certainly do so, but at the disservice of the more subtle suggestions they’ve already made. Just as so many films do, Hanna may occasionally patronize.
Nonetheless, it is a beautiful and haunting film, and built on a few truly remarkable moments. Joe Wright is clearly still figuring out his approach, but this seems like a huge step in the right direction. Though he may need to scale back some of his more experimental work, as it can be periodically distracting, he really has conceived of a few inspiring moments in Hanna. With an almost musical approach to film, and a clear focus on pacing, Wright should continue producing films that get the blood flowing.