Movie review: Joe Wright's Hanna

Raised in the forest by her father (Eric Bana), an ex-CIA agent, Hanna is a smart, attentive teenager who is also an expert at self defense and survival. Her training in the woods is just the first of her many rites of passage, including a looming showdown with the cunning, ruthless CIA agent (Cate Blanchett) responsible for Hanna and her father’s exile.

Working from a screenplay that forgoes meaningless twists and turns or feints to keep viewers off balance, director Joe Wright (Atonement, The Soloist) builds and frames Hanna’s suspense with a watchmaker’s precision. Hanna’s escape from a holding complex under Morocco early on in the film is masterfully handled, providing the adrenalin rush we’ve been waiting for while simultaneously earning compassion for its main character. With his protagonist out in the open, Wright proves adept at artfully capturing Hanna’s sense of wonder and fear at a world she has only read about.

Potent as Wright’s direction is, the movie belongs to Saoirse Ronan (Atonement, The Lovely Bones), who is astonishing in the title role. Her expressive features are Ronan’s powerful instrument — particularly the large, arresting eyes that she uses to convey awe or cold determination and purpose. So good is she at communicating her character’s nuanced emotions, it’s easy to overlook the incredible job Ronan does handling the physicality of the part. She is thoroughly convincing as a disciplined fighter with the wild-child naiveté that befits someone raised so far outside the influences of modern society, she can only wonder what music sounds like.

Hanna itself is like a musical composition that could have used more space or shadings between the main notes. Instead, in its quest to maintain momentum, it sometimes moves a bit too hastily from one conflict to the next. And while its storytelling is lean and effective, the movie stumbles a bit with too-convenient (and often unexplained) plot devices that keep both Hanna and her father running from one predicament to the next.

The film’s suspense is driven by its predator-versus-prey construction, but it’s the sympathy generated for Hanna that makes the movie a fully engaging and thought-provoking experience. Hanna is a rare bird — a thriller imbued with the rich textures of an art film. And its fairy tale allusions resonate all the more because Hanna is the little girl who wants to meet the big, bad wolf.

Like the Grimm Brothers’ Hansel and Gretel (and related folklore) that figure so prominently in its design, Hanna is a fabulous modern riff on dark children’s fairy tales, assuming the form of a crackerjack thriller of survival and revenge. That it unfolds with startling precision and efficiency, with nary a wasted scene, is refreshing because it seems so uncommon.

As the film opens, a hunting sequence quickly and effectively establishes the movie’s tone, as does the ominous title card that fills the screen. Just like that, Hanna announces itself in bold fashion and then proceeds to make good on its promise of a unique and satisfying cinema experience.

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