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April 10, 2011

There are action movies which are pure eye candy — Sucker Punch comes to mind, particularly — and then there are those which are great movies in their own right. Hanna is solidly in the latter category, head and shoulders above most action movies on their own terms, and a solid all-around piece of cinematic art.

Hanna is, at heart, a fairy tale. Once upon a time, there was a very special girl, who lived in the woods with her father. A wicked witch had cast a spell on the girl before she was even born, but her father raised her and trained her to fight back against the witch when the time came. The witch is Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), a high-ranking CIA agent who once worked in Eastern Europe. One of her key agents at the time was Erik Heller (Eric Bana), who disappeared in 1994 with his infant daughter, Hanna (Saoirse Ronan).

Since then, Erik and Hanna have been living just south of the arctic circle in Finland. Erik has been training his daughter to survive under any circumstances, knowing that she would grow up and need to return to the world eventually. When she does, he shows her a transceiver that will alert the CIA to Hanna’s location, and then leaves to meet up with her later, after she gets rid of Marissa.

Hanna is found and taken into custody in an attempt to locate her father. She escapes, capturing a file with her picture, of which she can only make sense of the words “DNA” and “abnormal”. Outside, she finds herself in the middle of the desert in northern Morocco, chased by an unsavory mercenary, Isaacs (Tom Hollander), needing to find her way to Berlin to rendezvous with her father, and to find out what secrets lie in her past.

For all her training and physical ability, Hanna doesn’t actually know very much. Most of it is basically lists of facts and figures from an old encyclopedia her father would read to her, but she lacks any sort of real context within which to put them. She doesn’t even really know who she is and how she relates to any world greater than the forest where she grew up. This is in sharp contrast to Sophie (Jessica Barden), the worldly daughter of a vacationing British family Hanna falls in with for a time. Not only is Hanna searching for her past, she’s searching for herself and her future in a world very different from any she has ever known.

Ronan is excellent as Hanna. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine anyone else in the role, she fits it so well. It’s a radical shift from her roles in The Lovely Bones and The Way Back; to say her range and dedication is impressive would be an understatement. Blanchett is also perfect: driven, meticulous, with a predatory grin and a voice oozing with sickly-sweet honey.

Joe Wright’s direction is immaculate. The action is not presented in split-second, jittery shots that disorient more than anything else. Instead they are clear and precise, including several minutes-long tracking sequences containing elegantly choreographed movement and combat. And yet when it’s time to step away from the action — and there is plenty of time away from action sequences — Wright crafts calm, meditative, and even reverential moments. His direction combined with Ronan’s acting work to communicate her emotional state more effectively than any dialogue could.

Of course, I would be remiss in not mentioning the excellent score by the Chemical Brothers. It stands well on its own as an album, but in context it integrates seamlessly with the film. There are few soundtracks in recent memory that work so well both in and out of context.

Hanna is an great action movie that manages to incorporate excellent work in both story and character. But even better than that, it’s one of the few movies of any description with a female protagonist who doesn’t actually have to be. Basically the same movie could have been made with a male lead in Hanna’s place, and yet they made the active choice to give a real, serious main character to a woman. More than all the other things Hanna gets right, this is the one that needs to be repeated into the future.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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