MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Hanna

(Three and a Half Stars)
U.K.-U.S.: Joe Wright, 2011

Hanna, an action film for people who love action movies and also for some who don’t, is Kick-Ass and The Bourne Identity filtered through Pride and Prejudice. And I don’t mean that as a knock.

Director Joe Wright, who made the 2005 Keira Knightley version of Jane Austen’s best-loved novel, and also the BAFTA-winning 2007 film of Ian McEwan’s grim Atonement, is a director with a style both flashy and sumptuous, snazzy and arty. And, in Hanna, he‘s demonstrating something we wouldn’t quite have expected from him: rock ‘em, sock‘, burn-down-the-house and kick-your-way-loose action movie skills.

The movie — which stars Saoirse Ronan (who was the magnificent jealous little girl in Wright’s Atonement) as the kick-ass title heroine, hard-fisted Hanna, Eric Bana as her action mentor home-schooling dad Erik, and Cate Blanchett as Marissa, the vicious C.I.A. agent villainess — is such a departure from what Wright has done before, including perhaps the dramatic work he did on British series TV before Pride and Prejudice (The Last Kings), that it’s hard not to be impressed with this movie on pure technical and pure career levels. Impressed not only with Wright, but with Ronan and Blanchett as well. (After all Eric Bana is an ex-“Hulk,” but we’re more used to seeing acting princess Ronan simmering with repressed passion or fleeing from killers, and acting queen Blanchett Elizabeth-ing or Kate Hepburning it up.)

Wright starts out this radical departure from his previous work — and this radical feminist departure from most other action movies — with the kind of scene that would have passed for a big action set-piece in one of Wright’s earlier period films: a crisp, white snowy deer hunt and kill in the wilds of Finland, where the gifted 16-year-old Hanna, trained in all manner of martial arts and assassin skills in the wilderness by her extreme home-schooling dad Erik, brings down a stag and philosophically muses.

Then, it keeps escalating into spectacular brawls, one-take one-against-a-bunch subway battles, and bloody and bloodier showdowns. (Stunt coordinator and fight choreographer Jeff Imada has done great stuff with the three leads, especially the seeming non-fighters Blanchett and Ronan.) And the story moves her with dizzying speed to the Moroccan desert, the sex clubs (the famous Safari) of Hamburg, and the streets, subways and abandoned amusement parks (the Spree Park) of Berlin.

It’s quite a ride. The whole movie is a long three-sided chase: Hanna is captured early on by Marissa when Erik leaves her on her own, arranging to rendezvous with her later in Berlin. Then she escapes, and her captor Marissa pursues both her and Erik, who’s also racing to rejoin Hanna.

The fights are all set-pieces, and they feel like set-pieces. Wright shoots one of them in a virtuosic unbroken long Steadicam camera take, which reminds you irresistibly of the spectacular unbroken tracking shot on Dunkirk Beach in Atonement. And he turns another action scene into a sharp-edged maze of parked trucks and sadistic stalking.

The three lead actors — along with Tom Hollander as a delightfully perverse villain Isaacs, Olivia Williams, Jason Flemyng and Jessica Barden as a delightfully unlikely British family Hanna meets in the desert on the way — have the kind of acting chops you don’t usually see in movies like this, and they display them as much as they can, as much as Seth Lochhead and David Farr’s script lets them.

All the characters, in fact, have more fullness, personality and surprises than the action movie norm. They’re reminiscent at times of the more psychologically detailed or richly eccentric lead and secondary characters in an old style British thriller by Powell & Pressburger or Alfred Hitchcock, or a classy American or international thriller by John Huston or Orson Welles (or by the expatriate Hitch).

We haven’t had many literate thrillers lately (The “Bourne” movies excepted, of course), and it’s a non-guilty pleasure to see one here, to see filmmakers who are trying to please us on a multitude of levels and not just trying to smash us out of our seats and blow us out of the back of the theatre — filmmakers who want to give us, as they do here, explosive action, fairytale romance and grim suspense, solid character and exciting adventure, good acting and writing, exotic locales and splashy technique, and both visual beauty and visual shock.

The results are usually drop-dead gorgeous and exciting, but not necessarily, completely satisfying — at least to me. What we’d expect from Wright — memorable characters and high-style high drama — are here, but not emphasized as much as the story sometimes needs, to make total sense. The action scenes are scorchers, and they’re shot beautifully by cinematographer Alwin Kuchler (of Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher) on stunning sites and sets by designer Sarah Greenwood. (Greenwood’s interrogation chamber below the Moroccan desert is an homage to Ken Adam‘s great War Room set in Dr. Strangelove.) But I thought they became a little too set-piecey at times, took over the show a little too much.

Modern action movies often try to blast you out of your seat from first scene to last, sometimes never leaving you a moment to catch your breath. In a movie like Sucker Punch or Battle: Los Angeles, even the breathers are shot rammo-blammo, so they explode in your face. But a great action scene in a really great action movie — from the chase across the salt flats in John Ford’s Stagecoach to the finals fugal climax of Christopher Nolan‘s Inception — works on both an emotionally dramatic level and a viscerally physical one. That’s what makes Hanna a special movie, and well worth seeing, but also sets up a bill that it doesn’t always fill.

Saoirse Ronan, like the 13-year-old Natalie Portman in her first film, Luc Besson‘s The Professional (1994) — not as good a film, by the way, as this one — has a natural talent for bewitching the camera and for suggesting levels and levels of thought and memory and passion beneath even a silent surface. Ronan is kind of strong and silent in Hanna, which makes her more mysterious and deepens the film‘s mysteries, including any nagging little questions we might have about the relationship among Hanna, Marissa and Erik, and the others. That ability to hold the screen with quietude is just as important for a first-class actor as the ability to make your lines always sound spontaneous and real and full of meaning. Ronan seems to have it all instinctively.

Just as Cate Blanchett does. I wouldn’t call this one of Blanchett’s best performances, though it will probably be seen by more people than usual and even though the villain parts in movies like this are usually the juiciest roles. Wright says he wanted in Blanchett’s Marissa a personality mixture of one of his grade school teachers, a wicked witch and George W. Bush. (I didn’t catch the Bushisms, but Blanchett does get a slight Texas accent.) Marissa is nasty and cold, and she also suggests something disturbingly human beneath the snaky, icy, mean-bitch facade.

Anyway, any opportunity to see Blanchett act is a treat to relish — even if her villainy here is slightly upstaged by Hollander, as a slimy smiling, immoralist cutthroat with lousy fashion sense, on Marissa’s payroll.

I’d like to strike a slightly discordant note here, though. And I don’t mean it as a knock. (Really.) Kick-Ass was just a comedy/fantasy, but Hanna is a movie with some serious intentions, and it’s intended at least partly as a fable of empowerment for women. Maybe it is. But though the movie is entertaining, I wonder if it’s that empowering, to women, to see a slam-bang movie she-assassin whose body is a lethal weapon and who can kick the shit out of everybody, or if they really want to take her as their personal heroine and role-model.

I realize that it’s all just an archetypal fantasy and a mythic entertainment. But I’m not so sure we should almost automatically, as part of a large, even overwhelming movie trend, shove the apostles of peace out of most of our pop myths and celebrate almost nothing but fireworks, wham-bam and rock-‘em-sock-‘em in many of our biggest movies. I’m not knocking all action movies either; I like, or love,  good ones too. (Take that, you bastards!)

But the women who are heroines to me (not counting, for the moment, women in the military or the police) are the ones who suffered and persevered and triumphed, in small and big ways, in fields like art and science and education and medicine and sports and politics, and even in just raising good families and being good mothers (or good friends), without tearing someone’s throat out or kicking the crap out of some bad guy. If I bumped into a real-life Hanna, of which there may be a few, sort of, I’d salute. But I wouldn‘t necessarily fall in love. Maybe.

I know. That’s far afield. In the end, this is just an action movie. And a damned good one. Forget I said anything.

As for Joe Wright, he seems to have approached this movie as a good student, sopping up all the movie influences that would help him, ignoring the ones that can’t. In a way, Hanna is like a good student project — and once again, I don’t mean that as a knock. Wright is definitely a solid professional, and so was that great director-student of Hollywood genre pictures, Howard Hawks.

Whatever Hanna’s financial success though, I doubt that Wright intends a career in action movies, doubt that he plans on eventually working himself up (or down) to Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone and a recharged Arnold Schwarzenegger, or to Vin Diesel — or, closer to home and perhaps more plausibly, turning Daniel Day Lewis, Ralph Fiennes, Colin Firth and even Anthony Hopkins into kick-butt action heroes. (Day-Lewis as Plastic Man? Hopkins as The Shadow?) Or further empowering actresses like Meryl Streep and Natalie Portman and Hilary Swank. But Wright definitely hit the brass bell here.

So, now that he’s shown us he can blast us all out of seats, I’d like to see Joe Wright do something ambitious and novelistic again, but more epic. Maybe something by Dickens or Thackeray or Eliot, or something more modern. And with roles for people and artists like Cate Blanchett and Saoirse Ronan. The actors, the actresses. My heroes.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon