Director Joe Wright and star Saoirse Ronan both contributed to 2007’s magnificent Atonement, which I consider to be at the very least the best movie of the twenty-first century thus far, and which I just re-reviewed with gushing praise. It’s a perfect film, constructed with the utmost care, so that every single aspect from cinematography to the acting to the score work in unison to form one beautiful work of art. Despite being disappointed with Wright’s follow-up (The Soloist), I still maintain high hopes that he has the ability to bottle that lightning once again. I went into Hanna half-expecting just such a feat.
Perhaps that was foolish. No movie can hope to match those same highs, and though Hanna has many moments that get very close, it also contains a lot of scenes that make me wonder how Wright ever made magic in the first place.
The movie is about the titular Hanna (Ronan), a girl who has been raised in the forest by her father (Eric Bana), trained to be a killing machine. She is taught even to sleep with one eye open in order to prevent a stealth attack. Why is her father so worried about Hanna being able to protect herself from an attacker, if they live out in the woods by themselves? Because he knows that a shady government agent named Marissa (Cate Blanchett) will stop at nothing to track his daughter down and destroy her; the reasons for this will be alluded to using veiled yet clunky expository dialogue throughout the film. Once Marissa has figured out where the two are hiding, there’s nothing for them to do but run.
After a long, largely silent prologue that introduces the main characters, the movie kicks it into overdrive as Marissa’s cronies surround their cabin at night. Hanna is a total bad-ass, and the movie wants us to know it. As the scene begins, we get the first taste of the Chemical Brothers score that will come to be the real star of the film. Wright has a great sense of music, a huge compliment that I feel is easy to give despite his transgressions otherwise. I wrote in my recent review for Atonement that at times it feels more like an opera, perhaps the one truly marvleous scene in The Soloist involves a character just listening to a piece of music, and here the thumping, whirling Chemical Brothers score gives the film much more emotional weight than it would have otherwise. Throughout my entire viewing of the film, I was transfixed. I kept thinking about the scene as they played out, “Would this scene even work if it weren’t for the score?”
That’s a little bit unfair. Wright, working with cinematographer Alwin Kuchner (Sunshine, Proof), certainly has an eye for a gorgeous shot. If you’ve seen the trailer, you might recognize a scene which takes place at an abandoned amusement park. The area is equal parts fantastic and terrifying. Throughout the movie, the camera swirls and the scenes cut cleanly between one another in marvelous ways. I’ve seen people compare the film to Run Lola Run, a fair comparison. It’s the music, yes, and the endless chase, but in addition to that there is the playful way that the camera documents the events that unfold – from above, spinning, in long shots that turn to quick close-ups. It’s adrenaline without the rush – just a smooth, slow shot of pounding action.
So in some ways, particularly the visual dynamic that the film produces combined with (or rather, compounded with) the thrilling musical accompaniment by the Chemical Brothers, the movie reaches so close to what I went into the theater hoping for. A great example comes in a flashback sequence showing the moment when Hanna’s father knew that they had to leave society for a while. They are driving down a road as night is beginning to fall, when an assassin steps out from the bushes and fires into the vehicle. The car crashes off-screen, just the sound of shattering glass and twisted metal, then the camera follows the assassin from behind as she cautiously approaches the wreckage. An engire fire provides the only light for the scene, and on the soundtrack the light and eerie strains of a calliope enter – a choice I would not have expected but which works wonders in the moment. A friend of mine recommended 2010’s Tron: Legacy on the basis of the score (by Daft Punk) alone, but that film’s music pales in comparison – the keen sense of how to drive the emotion of any given scene using the audio alone is a magnificent treat.
But there are other times, unfortunately, when Hanna is – alright, I’ll say it – just awful. Most striking to me are the multiple stabs at humor that are wedged into the movie, none of which work. There’s a moment where Hanna sits next to a boy and they both act like awkward tweenagers moving slowly closer to one another for the briefest of romantic subplots, another time when Hanna brings a skinned rabbit to dinner with a family which has taken her in during her travels. Each of these moments is played simply for the sake of the forced joke – the movie pauses to allow the audience time to wipe the tears of laughter from their eyes. Viewing the movie in a mostly-empty theater only amplified how far these attempts at humor miss.
In addition, there is a lack of coherence to the plot as a whole. There are too many plot points which are forgotten entirely or wrapped up too quickly to provide any sense of closure. The aforementioned family plays a large part in the film. The parents are ultra-liberal to the point that a, what, fourteen-year old traveling the world on her own is accepted as a sign of good parenting for promoting a sense of independence. Their discussions and justifications for what they say and do are simply cartoonish. But that’s not what I’m trying to get at here. Although they play a large role in the movie, and in fact their young daughter becomes Hanna’s closet confidante, they are written out without a second thought. Whatever weight Hanna’s first true friendship might have held is easily forgotten, and all the more perplexing, the other girl’s last few scenes come after a sudden back-and-forth of emotion that is never ironed out. Hanna’s father and Marissa seem to have some dark past that they must inevitably address: their eventual meeting seems like destiny. Once the event actually takes place, though, it lacks the punch or sense of grandeur that one might expect from the occasion. A fight sequence where Bana faces six faceless baddies in a subway station holds a greater feeling of excitement than when he squares off against what seems to be his arch-nemesis.
The fact that these numerous moments are so poorly delivered, not by the actors themselves, but instead by the filmmaking, is especially disconcerting given how extraordinarily Wright built the scenes in Atonement. What makes this different? How did he manage to create scenes like the one where Cecilia unwittingly opens herself up to Robbie at the fountain, in the previous film, yet have such trouble keeping entire plot threads from becoming clipped or ultimately useless here? Those missteps make me wince. They’re painful because I know that Wright is capable of setting up something far more consistent and compelling than this. It leaves this viewer feeling conflicted, because although I do see remnants of what once was in the things that work in this movie, the cracks are equally apparent.
Altogether, I think that the good outweighs the bad. When the movie worked, it had me sitting forward in my seat, it had my heart racing. It had me excited, eager to share the experience with friends. When it didn’t – which, upon reflection, may be more often than I had realized – it was more than just disappointing. It was disheartening. I do want to see the film again; I can find solace in the aspects that were superb and try to consider the rest superfluous. Overall, I still feel that Hanna is a very good movie, but “very good” is such a long way away from perfect – it’s hard not to feel let down.