Friday, April 8, 2011

Looking For Childhood Through An Adulterated Lens

Saoirse Ronan as the title character in Joe Wright's adventure fairy-tale drama "Hanna". 
Focus Features

by Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW
Friday, April 8, 2011

Joe Wright may have crafted his best film to date in "Hanna", a kinetic adventure bolstered by The Chemical Brothers booming, pulse-pounding electro-beat score that is a distinct character unto itself.  Saoirse (pronounced "Ser-sha") Ronan stars as the title character, a young child without a mother who gets a rigorous education from her father, a former CIA operative (Eric Bana), in the isolated wintry Finland countryside. 

Hanna is an adult in most respects, and she spends the film looking for her childhood, while Erik (Mr. Bana) is on the run from his ex-colleague Marissa Viegler (Cate Blanchett), a CIA investigator who is tracking Erik and Hanna's whereabouts. 

"Hanna" is a furious yet contemplative experience.  The film has the energy younger moviegoers crave and the thought-provoking scenes many adults admire.  The film is full of razor-sharp hip intelligence and visual beauty.  Mr. Wright doles out action scenes with discipline and lets those scenes breathe with minimal editing, atypical of most action sequences in films.  There's one impressive fight sequence featuring Mr. Bana that's a clean, crisp marvel, done as a nearly unbroken take, while the camera dollies around the participants.  It's superbly executed.  The film highlights nuance and strikingly contrasts visuals: the stark, barren landscape of Hanna's surroundings in the wintry wilderness, and the industrial, techno-rock and icy imperialism of Marissa's domain at the CIA.

Early on, Ms. Ronan's Hanna is feral, ala Anne Parillaud's character in Luc Besson's "La Femme Nikita", to which "Hanna" gives a brief homage in two scenes.  Hanna is a mostly blank slate at the start.  The film's atmosphere gradually changes, becoming more colorful as Hanna grabs for the missing pieces of a childhood she is yet to have. 

Ms. Ronan crafts a fine performance as Hanna, balancing mature wisdom with blunt precociousness and tenderness.  Ms. Ronan has occasionally played characters who take innocence away from others ("Atonement") or who lose innocence prematurely ("The Lovely Bones"), and here she's desperately looking to find innocence to bring her lacking child years into focus.  In all cases Ms. Ronan, just 15 during the filming of "Hanna", inhabits powerful if somewhat tragic characters.  She'll be 17 next week and onscreen holds up very well against seasoned actors like Mr. Bana and the great Ms. Blanchett, two talented Australians caught in a battle of wills on a cynical, twisted fairy-tale playground.

The film's production design is expertly staged and as in previous films Mr. Wright uses one or two three-minute scenes to show-off his choreography and views of other worlds and cultures.  He also juxtaposes the ritual and finite layers of the adult world with over-sized children's houses and playthings, accentuating a garishness and grotesque feel that operates either as a projection of a child's nightmares or as a childless adult's fear of children.  Immense psychology and perception fuel much of "Hanna".  Seth Hochhead's original story is written by Mr. Hochhead and David Farr.  The script has a way of shredding through pretense and focusing laser-beam tight on every word.  The economy of word delivery and execution is smart, as is the film's contrast between steely technology and the rustic.

Ms. Blanchett's CIA Marissa is Dick Cheney mixed with Cruella De Vil, icily acted and vocalized with sinister, distant cadence and a Texas twang that is no accident, a not-so ambiguous commentary on a recent U.S. presidential administration.  A key figure, Marissa pursues both Hanna and Erik, using Isaacs, an offbeat, overgrown, child-like man who has outgrown toys but not kiddie cruelty.  As played by Tom Hollander, creepy here as a colorful but heartless man on a mission, Isaacs is an overgrown plush toy, more malevolent than Lotso of "Toy Story 3".  His appetite for violence so strong, Isaacs can barely wipe the figurative bloody drool from his mouth.  Mr. Hollander has played different and distinct roles in each of Mr. Wright's four films, and keeps you off-kilter with his good work here.

Mr. Bana's physicality matches the demands of Erik.  Like Ms. Ronan, Mr. Bana maintains completely credibile in each of the environments he's placed.  There's a subtle balance of vulnerability and humanity to Erik despite his brutal, doctrinaire and clinical training of Hanna early on.  Jessica Barden, a fine, talented actress (memorable in "Tamara Drewe") is the film's comic relief, using great timing and one-liners that release tension at the right moments.  Ms. Barden's character Sophie is a poster-child of the here-and-now, and Mr. Wright astutely comments on her and the children of today.  Sophie is dressed like an all-white iPod when we first see her in a barren land, a firm rebuke and cheeky satirical slap at the short-attention 21st century.

As well as making a brief but telling point about one career woman, "Hanna", which could have been made in any era, comments on what it means to be a family in 2011.  Family is now longer defined the way it was 30 years ago.  Films like "The Kids Are All Right" among others demonstrate this.  "Hanna" has a cross-section of families: one is the CIA team, another is the familial bond between Erik and Hanna, a third is the conservative, "traditional" family Hanna seeks to connect with. 

Could Hanna survive in today's world?  She may not fit in but I suspect she'd be more prepared than most, having seen far more than many adults a generation advanced.  Hanna could definitely protect herself at night.  I'd have her with me in a dark alley or in the trenches any day of the week.

With: Olivia Williams, Jason Flemyng, Vicky Krieps, John MacMillan, Jamie Beckmann, Aldo Maland, Christian Malcolm, Michelle Dockery.

"Hanna" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for sexual content including strong dialogue, and language.  The film's running time is one hour and 50 minutes.

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