Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Grim Fairy Tale of Hanna

Hanna_posterKids kicking ass are all the rage these days. You’ve got Kickass, of course, with its blue streak-swearing preteens. There’s the lovable forever-teen Michael Cera punching fools until coins come out in Scott Pilgrim. And let’s not forget Harry Potter and his magical mates, who banish unnamed evils from Britain with a wave of their wands.

Harry Potter is the only one of those examples actually tailored for children. Kickass and Scott Pilgrim were intended for older audiences, the manchildren and the aging geeks that comprise the majority of that prized 18-34 male demographic. Child or teen (or – shudder – tween) action stars excites because of their implausibility, the disconnect between their youth and their ability to punish more thugs than the Governator in his heyday.

The marketing behind Hanna banked on this excitement: “Come watch that girl from The Lovely Bones deliver severe ownage! Also Cait Blanchett’s in it!”

Theatergoers will get the action promised in Hanna. They’ll also get a fairy tale about childhood, family, and the importance of innocence. One guess as to which is more effective.

The titular Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) is the quintessential fish out of water. Raised in the remote forests of Finland by her ex-CIA father Erik Heller (Eric Bana), she knows how to hunt, speak multiple languages, and carry herself in a fight. But she doesn’t know how to be a teenage girl. Erik, under the premise of letting her grow up, allows her to activate a homing beacon, which will alert  the woman who killed Hanna’s mother, CIA operative Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), to their location. This kicks off a kill-or-be-killed road trip destined to end with Hanna and her father reuniting in Berlin.

Her father off to find Wiegler, Hanna is alone and quickly captured by Wiegler’s men. Her introduction to the world outside of the forest is cold and severe. As she breaks out of Wiegler’s sterilized underground facility, strobe lights and a pounding score by The Chemical Brothers highlight Hanna’s disorientation. She escapes into the company of a congenial British family touring Morocco. To Hanna, their world – full of music, laughter and broad smiles – is just as strange as Wiegler’s prison.

From then until the grim(m) end of her odyssey, Hanna must balance the appeal of this strange new world with danger of the violent world her father prepared her for. Ronan’s up to performing this balancing act. Her wide eyes fill just as easily with terror as they wonder, sorrow as they do determination. Despite her ethereal appearance, she handles the physical demands of the role ably, defending Hanna’s adoptive road family with the ferocity of a burgeoning mother bear. Hanna cannot allow the violence of her past endanger her new friends.

Violence in Hanna is a measured, grisly, impressive affair. Director Joe Wright conducts his fight scenes with incredible rubato, dilating time to enhance the action. Contrast the smooth circular tracking shot of Bana trouncing goons in a subway with the frenetic fast-forwarding of film each time he makes contact. A gliding slow-motion fight on a playground is shot at medium range, allowing us to visually absorb every brutal blow. The fighters, Hanna included, dish out and receive serious damage that is graphic not in its make-up design but in its earnestness. This is a welcome change from most modern action that is edited so “kinetically” that you’d think mass motion sickness were the goal of the post-production crew. Wright indulges in this gritty fight choreography rarely and deliberately, carefully marrying it to the narrative.

You can feel the tug of Sony executives every time a gun is drawn, hear them begging Wright to push Seth Lochhead and David Farr’s script more in line with its marketing. Fortunately for Hanna (and for the audience), Wright resists whenever possible. Hanna is simply uncomfortable playing the role of conventional action thriller.

The genre’s story tropes land clumsily. Hanna’s discovery of her shady origins is delivered via clumsy pseudo-technological “Internet” sequence, the floating graphics of which would be more suited to the credits sequence for an X-Men film. Blanchett, all curt strides and clinical malice, comes off like less of a big bad CIA operative than a Big Bad Wolf in a pantsuit. And given Hanna’s fairy tale themes, that couldn’t be more appropriate.

Lochhead and Farr’s script is at its best when sprinkling humor and whimsy along Hanna’s path. Jessica Barden, playing Hanna’s teenage British friend Sophie, gets big laughs with innovative teenage jargon – “Vomitorium!” for gross, etc. The banter between her parents Sebastian and Rachel (Jason Flemyng and Olivia Williams) is warm, light, and tuned into the tug of war that is adolescence. Annoyed by the word “Vomitorium,” Sebastian implores Sophie to grow up and act her age. Sophie tells him he and her mother have been urging her to relish her childhood. They all smile at contradiction.

As in most fairy tales, childhood is the focus here. Childhood lost, stolen, repurposed, perverted, reclaimed, discovered. Those expecting a conventional action flick may be confused Hanna’s staid opening, its memorably bizarre characters (Tom Hollander shines as effete hitman named Isaacs), and occasionally blunt imagery. Those able to stomach gruesome fairy tales will find the touching story of a girl forced to choose between childhood and revenge.