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Life is beautiful and full of wonder—but is that enough to change the ways of a child trained as a killer in isolation from all humanity? “Hanna,” a new release from “Atonement” director Joe Wright, provides an answer to this question with a thrilling action movie. Although rife with action sequences and chase scenes that support a pulse-quickening plot, at its heart “Hanna” is a philosophical musing on the perspective-altering power of life’s inherent beauty.
The film opens with Hanna (Saoirse Ronan), a 16-year-old girl, on a moose hunt in northern Finland. The environment mirrors the character inhabiting it; Wright depicts both the harsh, icy landscape and the cold killing machine that Hanna has become at the hands of her father, Erik (a bland but effective Eric Bana). Wright skillfully alternates between stunning panoramic wide shots and intimate close-ups to create a sense of the immense isolation of father and daughter. But even as he underscores the gulf between Erik and Hanna and the rest of civilization, Wright is careful to preserve their humanity. “What does music sound like?” Hanna innocently wonders.
The film’s own music, composed by The Chemical Brothers, perfectly suits the visuals. Its mix of raucous electronica with chillingly sweet melodies complements the alternating bleak and thrilling images onscreen. Its artistic merits are sometimes undermined, however, when the score is mixed in loudly enough to divert attention from the scenes it was meant to augment. The film would have done better to rely less on its soundtrack and more on its compelling storyline.
That plot thickens almost immediately as Hanna’s separation from society is soon brought to an abrupt end. When Erik’s past catches up with him in the form of ruthless CIA investigator Marissa (Cate Blanchett) and he must flee Finland, Hanna departs as well and is finally given an opportunity to satisfy all of her real-world curiosities.
After escaping from a CIA base in Morocco, Hanna finds herself traveling around Europe with a British family and their pop culture-obsessed daughter Sophie, played by Jessica Barden in a hilarious turn. On her journey, Hanna experiences normal teenage life for the first time: she goes on dates with boys in Spain, dances, visits candy shops, and, of course, listens to music. Wright deftly demonstrates Hanna’s fascination with this new life through humorous incidents which highlight the extent of her abnormal upbringing. Yet, despite her oddities, she gains her first friend: Sophie explains to her at one point, “I mean you’re a freak and everything, but I like you.”
Ronan’s performance as Hanna is stunning. She exhibits remarkable control of her facial expressions, often using her eyes to express her astonishment with the world even as the rest of her face reflects her distance from it. The camera frequently circles around Hanna’s head, as if to show that she is constantly surrounded by an invisible barrier that prevents her from truly assimilating into the world around her. But thanks to Ronan’s affecting performance, the audience roots for this assimilation to occur, and for Hanna to overcome her violent tendencies.
“Hanna” is a tour-de-force not only for Ronan, but also for Joe Wright. A celebrated director of such dramas as “Atonement” and “Pride and Prejudice,” Wright here reveals a talent for crafting taut and beautifully-filmed action thrillers. He builds staggering, lengthy, artistic shots that somehow never seem to slow down the action. Instead, art is seamlessly combined with action, making “Hanna” one of the more creatively executed action bonanzas of recent memory. In one paradigmatic scene, Erik battles four CIA agents, and as he does so the camera darts impossibly between the punches and kicks of the melee. Shots like these make “Hanna” superior to many action thrillers: the film relies not on rapid-fire edits for its intensity, but instead draws the viewer into the immediacy of its drama.
What prevents “Hanna” from achieving true greatness is the lazy and contrived nature of its last act, which fails to tie up all of the film’s intriguing strands. Nonetheless, this narrative weakness aside, Wright’s film and Ronan’s performance succeed as a powerful meditation on the question of whether individuals have intrinsic humanity that cannot be wholly excised by even the harshest of circumstances. Adroitly combining this philosophical speculation with some of the most engrossing and original action scenes in theaters, “Hanna” is the rare film that offers a feast for both the eyes and the mind.
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