The most obvious thematic thread in Joe Wright’s new film Hanna is that of Hanna’s discovery of the world. Early on, Hanna’s father reads her an encyclopedia entry about music, and we realize she’s never actually heard music before. But she wants to. She wants to discover the secrets of a world she has never known. She wants to feel music.
Turns out that maybe the best way to demonstrate that tumultuous beauty and propulsive joy of music to Hanna would be to show her this film.
Hanna tells us the tale of a young girl (a basically-perfect portrayal by Saoirse Ronan) and her father (a certainly-laudable portrayal by Eric Bana). It’s mostly a revenge plot; the two set out to find and kill the woman (an also-pretty-good portrayal by Cate Blanchett) that tore their family apart and banished them to the icy north. They must face barren desserts, cartoonish henchmen, life lessons, and family secrets before they face off against the big bad wolf.
Ok, the bad guy isn’t an actual wolf (though the climax of the film actually does take place in the mouth of a giant wolf). But there’s no denying the pattern. Hanna is the story of a young, sheltered girl discovering a scary, wonderful, magical world, a plot that should sound familiar to anyone that’s read the book of Grimm’s fairytales that Hanna herself keeps poring over in the film. This story’s got all of the trappings of writ-large myth, punctuated with small personal stories.
At its heart, this film is nothing more than a fairytale. And a pretty coherently formed one at that.
But in addition to being an elegant and simple action-fairytale filled with some really strong performances, Hanna has something else going for it: it’s also a beautiful piece of cinematic art. Every scene has a propulsive rhythm all its own, its unique heartbeat animated by the driving score and the graceful editing. And the color and shape of every scene betray Wright’s skill and vision as a director.
The most obvious example is Hanna’s escape from the holding cell where she has been taken after becoming separated from her father. This escape sequence is fluid and dynamic, filled with flashing lights and clever spacial trickery. It brings to mind Tarantino’s flair for breezy, stylish visual language, but also Nolan’s knack for elegantly breathtaking action staging, all awash in the hues of a piece of fine art.
There are also a handful of long takes, a Wright trademark that I’ve lauded since the meandering party scene in Wright’s 2005 Pride and Prejudice. These single takes keep the relentless action sequences grounded in real time. This technique makes these sequences feel even more intense, like we’re forced to dodge, punch and run right alongside our heroes.
On balance, Hanna isn’t literature. It’s a simple, albeit well-told, story, and it might not offer literary critics much to discuss beyond the fairytale ethos of the whole endeavor. But Hanna is certainly very hard to beat for uniquely staged and beautifully portrayed action sequences. I might see more complex or more literary films this summer, but I don’t think I’ll see one as exuberant. Or as gorgeous.