2016 Film Essays

We Failed This Film: Joe Wright’s ‘Hanna’

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We Failed This Film is a series about underrated films that simply didn’t receive any love upon initial release. For the 15th entry, we’re heading into the bizarre fairy tale of Joe Wright’s Hanna.

How We Failed It

In April 2011, a friend and myself were bored one night. I had a gift card to a nearby theater, and Hanna was the only thing either of us were halfway interested in seeing, so we hit up an evening showing. We walked out convinced that we had seen an absolute gem.

Scripted by Seth Lochhead and David Farr, Joe Wright’s Hanna follows the title character (Saoirse Ronan), a young girl who has been raised in the arctics of Finland by her father Erik Heller (Eric Bana) to be a deadly assassin, trained to eventually reenter the real world to kill shady CIA operator Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett).

Hanna hit $40 million domestically (off a $30 million budget), with foreign markets bringing the worldwide gross to $63 million. Certainly nothing to scoff at, they still aren’t numbers that make executives bust out the champagne in the boardroom. What led to this? For one thing, the marketing was a mess. For example, take the trailer. While it’s difficult to condense the bizarre themes into two and a half minutes, the end product unveiled a disjointed effort. The trailer juggles with trying to please a generic-leaning mass audience while promoting the film’s unique edge, but it ultimately succeeds in doing neither.

Even so, critics were quite taken with the film. Roger Ebert wrote “He (Wright) demonstrates that action movies need not be mindless. There is a role for creative choreography in them, even in largely CGI scenes like a chase sequence involving shipping containers on a dock. Even when human bodies are not really there, their apparent movements must be choreographed, and that sequence is a beauty.”

Manohla Dargis praised Ronan’s performance: “In the end there might not be much to this tale other than titillation, but there’s plenty to be said for Ms. Ronan, who was the best thing about Atonement and holds her ground against forceful screen presences like Ms. Blanchett and Mr. Bana. Ms. Ronan is an otherworldly beauty with a gift for stillness and has alabaster skin that, depending on how it’s lighted, can look creamily alive or morbidly white. In Hanna she enters with a face nearly as blank as paper and devoid of obvious emotion, her eerie, translucent blue eyes here transformed into opaque pools.”

Even the detractors still found value in the film with Kenneth Turan writing “What Hanna shares with Wright’s most successful film, his adaptation of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, is the exceptionally gifted young actress Saoirse Ronan. Oscar nominated for that film as a 13-year-old and only 16 when Hanna was filmed, Ronan has the ability to make us believe the unbelievable, and she needs that talent to make this project come alive as much as it does.”

But even with the positive box office and the good reaction from critics, the film has already become a sort of forgotten gem of the decade just a few years later.

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Why It’s Great

Joe Wright had previously built himself up as a sort of prestige picture director with films like Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, and he was well out of his comfort zone with Hanna. Wright had never presented anything close to a fight scene before Hanna but still proved incredibly adept in the genre, as the fight scenes are a true cinematic delight to behold. Wright and director of photography Alwin H. Küchler draw out their action in long drags of takes, letting the precision stuntwork on display shine. Having done one of the all-time great one-take sequences in Atonement’s Dunkirk scene, it’s only fitting that Wright would innovate some new one-take sequences for Hanna. While each are inspiring, the most significant sequence takes place in a bus station, with the camera tracking Erik through various buildings and down an elevator as shady agents tail him. The buildup comes to a boil when Erik fights them in an underground terminal, taking them out with ease as the camera excitedly whirls around the action. Only when the scene ends does a cut occur, and the sequence stands with such classic one-take scenes like the hallway fight in Oldboy. It’s absolutely mind-blowing that they even pulled it off.

Hanna has a perverse fairytale quality, punctuated by various characters, images and lines. After all, the film follows a girl raised in the woods (by her father) to fight a sort of evil stepmother, and Hanna reads from Grimm’s fairytales at night in their cabin, which is right out of a storybook. Wright successfully evokes these fairy tale notes and archetypes, intriguingly re-contextualizing them into his action film. The score by electronic duo The Chemical Brothers is a without a doubt one of the film’s greatest traits. Pulsating and chaotic, the music puts the film’s kinetic pacing into overdrive and complements the heightened fairy tale reality of Hanna’s aesthetic.

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Saoirse Ronan has long been one of the best actresses of her generation, with the role as Hanna (a re-teaming with Wright after Atonement) representing a true highlight. She expertly handles the physicality of the role, performing fight sequences and stunts that prove she could nail an action career if she wanted to. But even with all she brings physically to the role, it’s the natural empathy in Ronan that makes Hanna such an iconic figure. Ronan masterfully balances an ingrained ability to kill with a yearning for life, selling Hanna’s wonder in her semi-detached demeanor as she ventures off into the world.

Cate Blanchett is one of the all-time great actresses of cinema, and she continued to prove it by producing a memorable villain in Marissa Wiegler. She provides everything you need to know about Marissa’s psyche simply by the way she obsessively brushes her teeth to perfection. Blanchett carefully measures out Wiegler’s unraveling psyche as she pulls strings and goes behind her agency’s back to capture Hanna, and it’s a captivating juggling act to watch in Blanchett’s hands. Eric Bana boasts a formidable presence as Erik, balancing loving fatherhood and dark ulterior motives in his interactions with Ronan. Olivia Williams and Jason Flemyng make considerable appearances as the parents of a British family Hanna takes to.

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There’s a dark humor that underscores the film, much of it embodied by the mere existence of Isaacs, a eurotrash assassin played with such zeal and understated camp by the film’s MVP Tom Hollander. Instantly iconic, Isaacs dons bleached blonde hair and awful tracksuits while accompanied by his two skinhead henchman. With just his look alone, there’s a comedic edge to every single thing Isaacs does, whether he’s violently threatening someone or directing a macabre stage play.

Without a doubt, Wright is your first call when you’ve got a classic piece of literature to adapt, but he’s at his most auteur-driven and inventive when he’s unhinged and out of his comfort zone, as evidenced by Hanna. Each shot feels slightly off convention, all building towards Hanna’s bizarre heightened reality. Atonement may always be widely regarded as Wright’s best work, but Hanna is his bravest and most authentic (and should be remembered as such).

Dylan Moses Griffin has been a cinephile for as long as he can remember. His favorite film is Taxi Driver, and he reads the works of Roger Ebert like it’s scripture. If you want, he will talk to you for 30 minutes about the chronologically weird/amazing Fast and Furious franchise.

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