Hanna (2011): Joe Wright
From the director of Atonement comes Hanna , a movie about a child who can kill you eight ways from Sunday. Get ready for Joe Wright and The Chemical Brothers to bring you the best-scored action movie of the decade.
ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: A girl raised alone in the subarctic wilderness returns to European civilization the target of a vengeful CIA agent.
Hanna begins with a blond wisp of a child hunting a reindeer in pristine snow. The girl stalks the lone deer amongst the trees, carrying only a bow and arrow. In the right moment she draws the strings and looses the arrow, sending it into the giant creature. The deer sprints into a clearing, stumbles, and collapses. The girl kneels by the deer and withdraws the arrow. “I just missed your heart,” she says matter-of-factly. She draws a pistol and puts a bullet in the deer’s brain. Blammo. Title card.
Hanna won’t be pulling any punches, and neither will its titular hero, Hanna (Saoirse Ronan). Most girls don’t spend their days hunting and gutting deer in the subarctic wilderness, but most girls aren’t raised off the grid by their fathers, men like Erik Heller (Eric Bana), on the run from the United States Central Intelligence Agency.
Hanna and Erik live together in a cabin the woods far from civilization. Theirs is a strange relationship from the start. As Hanna guts the deer, Erik pops up behind her to say “You’re dead.” Hanna turns and immediately fights her dad, trying to fake stab and shoot him before Erik disarms her. For losing the fight, Erik punishes Hanna by making her drag the deer alone to their home. “You must always be ready,” he says.
Hanna’s past slowly infiltrates the film through flashback and backstory. The child of a murdered mother, Hanna is a successful medical experiment run by the CIA for several years. One day Erik got fed up with the program, and he rescued mother and child, only to run into another CIA agent who killed the mother.
From that day Erik and Hanna have lived without contacting the outside world. They exist in their forest cabin. Erik reads Hanna selections from an encyclopedia, all the better to prepare her with. It leads to strange questions from Hanna, such as “What does music feel like?” asked while Erik reads about blue whales and the species’s music.
The constant practice comes to and end one day when Hanna flicks a switch that alerts the CIA to Erik’s location. She’s prepared her entire life for this moment, and after a drill giving Hanna a cover story, she and Erik leave the cabin, agreeing to meet in Berlin.
We expect Hanna to do cool things, and she does not disappoint. The men sent to the cabin to capture or kill Erik don’t find him. Instead they find Hanna and the two dead bodies of mercenaries at her feet. They capture Hanna instead.
Hanna’s capture was the first of a few surprises. She’s taken to a secure underground facility where she asks to meet Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), the woman who’s chasing her. Another surprise. Marissa agrees, but she sends a body double to greet Hanna. That appears to be a strange move, but we soon learn it was a wise one. Hanna kills the double and the two guards in the room. She escapes the CIA facility on her own.
Hanna is the most resourceful teenager in the world. She speaks several languages, Arabic among them, a feat great enough to earn her a free night in a Moroccan hotel. She can snap the neck of an adult with only her hands. She can fight off grown men wielding knives.
If you think these skills make Hanna unrelatable, you’re almost right. After Hanna escapes the underground facility, she meets a family of Brits driving through Morocco. The daughter, named Sophie, is chatty, plugged in to pop culture, and eager to impress boys. In other words, she’s as far apart from Hanna as a girl could be.
And yet, they become friends. Their strangeness attracts. Hanna can connect to others, and if she survives her fight with Marissa she might make a normal life for herself.
Erik warns Hanna of their nemesis. Likely he’s told her countless stories about Marissa Wiegler in their 15+ years on the run from her, but after Hanna flicks that switch he feels it important to reiterate. “She won’t stop until you are dead,” he says, “or she is.”
Cut to Marissa’s apartment. Clean, everything in its right place, and ornate but not ostentatious. Marissa believes in a spiffy appearance, and that starts with extensive use of an electric toothbrush, one of many products she owns for maintaining dental hygiene.
Marissa hears the news of Erik’s return to the grid and knows immediately it’s a big deal. She meets with other spooks and demands they take him. Erik hasn’t been active since 1994, but what he knows is too dangerous to not bring him in, so to speak.
Flashback to 1996, when Marissa last saw Erik and Hanna. A terrific scene follows. Erik drives Hanna and her mother along a country road somewhere in Europe.
Marissa waits behind a ground-level billboard, peeking at a car through a hole and arming a handgun. Marissa steps into the road, staring down the headlights of Erik’s car, and fires seven shots at and into the car. She dives out of the way and rolls on the ground. The camera stays on Marissa as she dusts herself off and runs to the car, which has smashed into a tree and caught fire.
Marissa runs to the car and finds the three occupants have left. Erik, carrying Hanna aged two, runs into the woods, dodging Marissa’s gunfire. Hanna’s mother lies supine on the dirt, her blue-tinged hair spread radially around her head. “She will never be yours,” she says to Marissa standing astride her. The CIA agent kills Hanna’s mother.
Return to present day. Marissa burns files relating to Hanna. Turns out she orchestrated a clandestine CIA program to genetically modify fetuses. These fetuses would be born with increased muscle strength, better resistance to fear, and less empathy. They would become supersoldiers. When Hanna was two Marissa decided to cancel the program, including the mothers. Hanna survived only because Erik rescued her before Marissa could finish the job.
Blanchett dons a southern accent for Hanna, and it throws me off because she’s not American and she not working in America. No matter; she’s skilled enough to pull off the wolf in sheep’s clothing bit.
Marissa quickly enters the field to clean up her mess. She must stop Erik first, because he definitely Knows Things. “I am the first and last person Erik Heller will see,” she says (and turns out correct). Hanna, Marissa finds intriguing; she might Know Things. Their final confrontation is a delightful romp through a land of fairy tales.
Hanna is packed full of kinetic action sequences. Hanna escapes an underground lair, she flees goons through a container park, she chases and is chased in an abandoned theme park, and she even fights her father twice. For all the running and leaping, few people actually die in Hanna. They chase the girl because they want to capture her, but she won’t hold back against them.
The first big sequence occurs underground. Hanna sits in a cylindrical room being interrogated by a creepy bald guy who stares into the camera. The questioner asks her if she’d like to talk. Hanna answers, “I was told by my father to gain the upper hand.” What a cute, teenager-y thing to say to an adult. I hear it all the time with the teens who volunteer at my job.
Hanna’s never been in a room like that. She’s never seen a camera, but she knows they surround her. She mentions camera obscura, knows its history, knows Latin. The CIA folks watching the feed find the interrogation boring, as if their jobs are all coattails and cocktails.
Hanna wants to speak to Marissa. Somehow she figures out that the woman who enters her cell later is an imposter, though the red hair and southern accents are close matches. Hanna cries on her and straddles her.
The CIA people watching know the situation is deteriorating. They order the imposter to leave. Some dudes enter the room to inject Hanna with a sedative. It’s too late. Hanna snaps the Marissa imposter’s neck, flips two guards onto the table, steals a gun and shoots them. She shoots out all the cameras in the room, as a middle finger, I guess, to Marissa, who watches from another room.
All the guys run around trying to capture Hanna, who walks through the compound in soft shoes and with a blood-splattered face. She finds some nerds and threatens them with her gun. They have sense not to trifle. Hanna can’t kill all the guards; she must elude them, and elude she does.
The facility is a brutalist concrete nightmare. Emergency lights flash on and off, casting alternating light/shadows across concrete slats. Disorienting to say the least. The camera spins around Hanna’s face as she runs to heighten the disorientation.
Eventually Hanna finds a tunnel, and she slides up it. That’s when we get another surprise. She’s being held in the middle of the desert. Might as well be Mars out there.
Later, Hanna and her tourist friends drive into Berlin. Marissa’s hired goon, Isaacs (Tom Hollander) , and his two hired goons follow the tourists’ RV until it stops on a side street. Hanna knows these men are after her, and she must run. Over the RV beds and out the back door to a neighboring container park she goes.
Hanna runs around corners. The other guys do too. No one knows where they are going. Soon Hanna runs into the bad guys. She kicks and swats to nudge them away. In little time the three have her. But they underestimate her. Hanna strikes at forearms to free herself and run away. She does not want to kill anyone, and anyway she might think she needs to conserve energy.
Isaacs walks amongst the containers, whistling a tune, while the other two run around. This is yet another of Hanna‘s many long takes, and this one might be the best. While the men work on the ground level, Hanna runs atop the metal boxes 20 feet up, leaping between the gaps.
The camera, on the ground, follows the goons, flicking up and down quickly to capture Hanna jumping above. Terrific choreography. The camera switches to another goon, who turns into the wrong gap, getting kicked out of it by Hanna. She fights both men off momentarily, long enough to see that Sophie, her teenaged tourist friend, has stupidly followed Hanna into the fray, after Hanna warned her, made her promise, not to.
Hanna gets between Sophie and the shorter of the two bad guys. This one’s got a knife. He swipes at Hanna, but the girl’s too fast. She blocks him and punches him. It’s hard to tell who is more frightened–the boy or Sophie. Hanna quickly intercepts the goon’s knife hand again, removing the weapon and slashing his chest about four times, spinning him, cutting his throat, and finishing with a gut stab.
Sophie runs away. I imagine she’ll jabber about this for years. Or she’ll never speak of it. No middle ground. Hanna, meanwhile, still has to escape Isaacs. She beats back the other goon and climbs the containers. The other guy climbs as well and they run and jump. Up ahead a container is moving, about to be stacked in their path. Does Hanna get past it in time and the other guy doesn’t? You know it.
Now Hanna’s ground level again, only Isaacs to chase her. They run through a scrap yard. Isaacs, all the track suits in the world won’t make you fast enough to catch Hanna. You’re an old man and she’s a young super soldier. Hanna leaps into the Spree river and swims to safety.
Hanna’s lone guardian is Erik Heller, former CIA agent and surrogate father. It is not until the movie nears its end that we and Hanna learn Erik’s identity. He once worked for Marissa, recruiting pregnant women from abortion clinics, where he met Hanna’s mother. The fetuses, once born, were taken by the CIA, bred to become super soldiers.
One day Erik got fed up with his role and quit the program, rescuing Hanna and her mother in the process, but the mother didn’t survive long, as we’ve seen, leaving Erik to raise Hanna in a forest cabin, training her for more than a decade to survive on her own.
He trained her well. Hanna is always prepared for what comes her way once she leaves her home, and that’s a shock considering how little she understands of the world. Note that I wrote “understands” and not “knows.” Erik owns few possessions in the cabin, but one of them is an encyclopedic work that he reads to Hanna every night. Thus Hanna knows that music is a combination of sounds used to express emotion, but she has never heard music and cannot yet understand it.
One day Hanna decides she is ready to leave home. Erik has warned her for a long time that Marissa will hunt her until one of them is dead, but, to his credit, he never tries to convince her to stay. When Hanna allows one more day for them to be together, Erik sighs with happiness. And when he returns that day to find Hanna has switched on the locating beacon that puts him back on the grid, he sits with more fatigue than can be expressed with words. He might not be her biological father; he is Hanna’s dad. Guy can throw a punch, too.
Another Hanna surprise comes in the form of four British tourists driving in an RV. Hanna escapes the CIA underground lair, wanders through the Moroccan desert, and meets a chatty teenager from Britain named Sophie (Jessica Barden). Sophie can’t be more self-assured. Seeing an organe-clad white girl in the Moroccan desert doesn’t faze her. She assumes Hanna can’t speak English and is from Sri Lanka, because M.I.A. is from Sri Lanka and didn’t speak English until she moved to the UK. That’s the batshit logic of a stream-of-consciouness child. Welcome to Sophie’s world.
Sophie’s mother is a hippie who eschews makeup, especially lipstick, because the latter’s red color is meant to evoke thoughts of the labia. Sophie’s mother says so in front of her two children, so it’s little wonder Sophie has no filter.
Despite being opposites in every way save their age, Sophie and Hanna become friends. Opposites attract, and all that. Hanna spills the beans about meeting her dad in Berlin, and a later interrogation by Marissa uncovers this fact.
Hanna spends much of the second act with these tourists, and they are a welcome respite. Too often spy movies neglect the outside world, making their web an insular and murderous world. Injecting the tourists, giving them arcs, reminds us that the CIA and super soldiers have consequences for regular folk. Collateral damage is real, and Hanna is a better movie for using this family.
Marissa heads a team of spooks determined to clean up her mess, though few of them know that she made the mess long ago. She has an underling who dies ignominiously, when Erik shoots him through an apartment peephole.
Her more prominent assistant is a freelance tough guy named Isaacs, a man producing girlie shows in Morocco and the most wannabe Tom Ripley in English cinema. Isaacs loves track suits and short shorts, and torture. He does not work for the CIA, but Marissa likes to hire him to do things “my agency will not let me do.”
Isaacs first tracks Hanna to a small hotel, where he tortures the owner for information about Hanna’s whereabouts. The owner doesn’t give her up; his security tapes do. Isaacs then stabs the owner in the neck with his own pen.
Isaacs calmly whistles his way across Morocco and into Spain, he and two associates following the tourist RV as it carries Hanna to and from camper parks. Problems arise when Hanna flees and attacks the men in a German container park.
Isaacs is memorable for his getup and creative use of torture. Later, he strings a man upside down and uses his body as an archery target.
Hanna liberally uses Steadicam and long takes, and no scene uses the techniques better than when Erik arrives in Berlin. From the moment he steps off a bus, the scene does not cut until he fights off four CIA goons. About four minutes of uninterrupted action.
Erik walks through the bus station and notices at least two men tailing him. For the first two minutes Erik is walking, the camera beside and in front of him, capturing a man tailing him ten yards back. It’s the worst tailing job in history, and the ex-CIA agent Erik must have found it an insult.
Erik leaves the station and walks to an escalator that runs underground. If you recognize the orange-tiled columns, that means you’ve seen them in Mockingjay: Part 2, Atomic Blonde, or Captain America: Civil War, which all used the location later.
Erik walks to the center of the space and notes the four men enclosing on him. The camera doesn’t cut away as the men attack. They come one at a time. Erik punches the guy on the walkie first, before you expect. Here comes the next guy, who gets kicked in the guts. Walkie guy comes back and takes one, two, three licks to end his time in Berlin. Then Erik’s kicked in the back. That’s the old Homer Simpson fight move.
There’s two other guys, and they strike now as Erik’s gripped by a third. Two land punches. The guy grappling Erik gets stabbed in the leg somehow, Erik taking the blade. He tosses aside the lithe fighters. One guy tries to draw a gun, but Erik slices his arm before he can get a shot off. Careful now, another agent, on his knees, has drawn a gun. Erik positions one agent as a human shield, and the other agent stupidly shoots him twice. When the gunshot victim falls, Erik hurls the knife into the shooter.
Erik is barely out of breath after maiming and killing four trained operatives in about one minute. Terrific work that eschews editing. I am a sucker for long takes. They crank up tension, and Hanna is no exception. You wait for a cut, no matter how fast, to breathe a little. Instead the camera stays on the fighters, and you hold your breath, knowing the scene won’t end soon enough.
Hanna‘s biggest challenge involves making an underage girl into a competent fighter. Hanna’s genetic modification makes her stronger opponent than Ronan’s physique belies, but how to transfer that onscreen? Answer: speed. Hanna doesn’t fight normally people. She kills two guards inside the underground interrogation facility, not with brawn, but with surprise, speed, and spot-on aim.
Later, she flees Isaacs and his two goons in a container yard. Mostly she runs and hides, striking quickly, but only to gain distance form her pursuers. Only once does she fight someone, and he carries a knife. She uses faster reflexes and hand speed to disarm him, take the knife, and slash his chest several times.
Hanna visits her grandmother’s house and figures out that Marissa killed her. Erik is there. They argue. Hanna learns Erik is not her father and that he is as responsible for her lifetime banishment from society as Marissa is. Hanna fights off her not-dad and runs away.
Marissa finishes what she started in 1994; she kills Erik. Hanna hears the shot and knows that her adult life has just begun. The time for fairy tales is about over. Yet she can’t break free until Marissa is dead.
Hanna runs back to the Grimm theme park. She finds her magician friend dead, his body a pincushion of arrows. A sound catches her ear. She walks to the window and pulls the curtain back. Did you expect the wide open eye of Cate Blanchett to stare back? No? Neither did I, nor Hanna. Scary moment. As she did earlier with the deer, Hanna draws out a bloody arrow from the dead man.
Marissa and Hanna chase each other through the abandoned theme park. They run across moldy swan boats, climb rotting wood platforms, hop through old ferris wheels. Along the way Hanna grabs a rope. Somehow they get onto a train track, running opposite directions. Hanna runs toward a tunnel guarded by an open wolf’s mouth. Marissa coolly walks out of it, gun aimed at Hanna.
“Don’t worry sweetheart,” Marissa says, turning the gun away. She hobbles closer despite Hanna’s warnings. “I can help you,” the wicked witch says. Yeah, help her die. Hanna says, “I don’t want to hurt anyone anymore.” Perhaps Marissa didn’t understand this as the warning it was.
“It’s over now, Marissa. Let me go.” Hanna turns away. Marissa dislikes that. She pours malice into her command. “Don’t walk away from me young lady.” She’d have made a terrific principal. Her gun rises. Hanna expected this move. She uses the bungee rope from the ferris wheel as a makeshift bow string, nocking the arrow, turning, and loosing the missile as Marissa shoots her gun, hitting Hanna’s hip. Both women hit the deck.
Hanna sits up and finds Marissa gone. She literally stumbles into the wolf’s mouth, which is pitch dark and too dangerous. Until it’s not. Hanna sees a deer standing in the tunnel. The animal gives Hanna confidence. She’s on another hunt, that’s all.
Hanna climbs a ladder and finds Marissa shooting at her. And missing, lots of missing. The women climb a tower toward a coaster track. Marissa, grim-faced, is about to shoot again when she slips, perhaps on her own blood, and slides down the coaster chute. It’s as inelegant a slide as can be, especially for a graceful character like Marissa Wiegler.
Now, recall the opening sequence, when Hanna shot the deer, pulled out the arrow, and muttered to it, “I just missed your heart.” Hanna picks up Marissa’s monogrammed pistol, stands over her and repeats the line. Blammo.
Sophie’s attitude and interactions with Hanna injected warmth into the staid film.
Hanna loves throwing its main character in stark settings. She opens the film in a white wonderland, hunting a deer on untrod snow pack somewhere far north. She lives in a cabin lit with several open fires, as if living in the 9th century.
Hanna leaves her home for a brutalist concrete nightmare where the CIA interrogates her in a camera-encircled room. She escapes that, trading one bleak landscape (her snowy home) for another, the Mars-red rocky desert of Morocco’s interior.
Hanna finds interesting setting after interesting setting. The orange-tiled Messedamm underpass serves as the setting of a great fight scene. A container park serves as another.
The climax occurs in an abandoned theme park called Spreepark. The fallen dinosaurs are there, as is a ferris wheel and disused train tracks and swan boats. I believe the crew built the wolf’s mouth tunnel for thematic purposes, but the rest was real.
Hanna owns two possessions from her time when her mother still lived: a photo booth strip of four pictures and a ratty copy of fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm. Hanna percolates fairy tale themes and images throughout.
Marissa is the best-dressed wolf I’ve seen. In a later scene she literally goes to Grandmother’s house, murdering Hanna’s biological grandmother and spilling the woman’s blood on a photo of Hanna’s mother. Isaacs even says they are off the Grandmother’s house.
OK, that’s about it with the direct fairy tale references, but Marissa’s character oozes villainy. Witness the way she’s filmed interrogating the youngest of the tourist family. She treats the boy nicely, but the hunger in her eyes in downright ravenous.
I think Hanna checks out OK.
- (3) Exceptional score, worthy of hearing on its own.
Summary (41/68): 60%
I’m a big fan of The Chemical Brothers, and their score of Hanna is an all-time great. Trippy, joyous, and intense, the music carries scene after scene. Throw in the popular use of the long take and you have a gripping thriller with a heroine to love and a villain bordering, but not entering, camp.
Surprise after surprise also aids Hanna. Where you think Hanna is changes. She’s not in CIA headquarters, she’s in the desert. She’s not in the American desert, she’s in Morocco. She’s not meeting locals, she’s meeting British tourists. Erik is her father, until he reveals that he convinced her mother to join the government experiment.