Joe Wright is starting to make a name for himself. Not as ‘one to watch’. That happened years ago. No, now he’s courting a different creative persona, one of the genre magpie. See, after making his feature directorial debut with Regency period drama, Pride & Prejudice, scoring plaudits with the heavily Oscar-nommed Atonement, and actively (and unsuccessfully) baiting awards attention with The Soloist, Wright’s new film, Hanna, moves completely away from the drama, romance and period poise of his previous work, instead aiming for high octane action thrills.
Saoirse Ronan stars as the lead character, a young girl who is brought up in remote Northern Europe by her father, ex-CIA agent, Erik Heller (Eric Bana). Schooled in multiple languages, lectured from various encyclopaedias, and taught to fend for herself as both a keen-eyed hunter and a resourceful fighter, Hanna is raised as the ultimate super-operative. Her skills are put to the test when she is finally set loose, on the hunt for Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), a shady figure from her father’s past.
It is in its opening scenes that Hanna really cooks, as Ronan and Bana develop a minimal, yet complex chemistry, made up of minute moments of warmth within Heller’s rather brutal training regime. As Hanna, Ronan is beguiling, able to be at once cruelly hard and youthfully naive. The former trait is put to thrilling, violent use in the film’s first action sequence, where Hanna adeptly, single-handedly breaks out of a CIA safe house, set to quick-cut montage and the bass-heavy throb of the Chemical Brothers score.
From the title card, which flashes blood-red on screen at the punctuation of a gunshot, Wright delights in going straight for the jugular, whether it’s in the compressed sense of pacing or the kid in sweetshop sampling of shots, set-ups and diegetic perspectives. At times it‘s dizzying, as extreme close-ups give way to CCTV mash-ups, zooms, and nonsensical strobing.
It’s an interesting, if rather superficial aesthetic, especially when twinned with the film’s equally unsubtle approach to characterisation. Wiegler, in a desperate bid for leitmotif, is immediately defined by her choice in footwear, as well as her ginger mop and heavy accent. Other directors could transform this mixture of expressionism and caricature into pop art, but Hanna comes off as uneven, at times even a little unsophisticated.
Where some scenes are giddy, energetic and exciting, others can be rather dull, and somewhat gaudy, especially when Tom Hollander’s slightly pervy, totally camp German hitman comes on the scene, clad in casual sportswear and daubed in eyeliner.
For the most part, though, Hanna is rather fun, but it flags in its middle act, where Hanna embarks on a personal journey of self-discovery that takes her from Finland to Morocco, and finally to Germany. Lost in the big wide world, the girl finds herself swept up in society, baffled by simple electronic technology and entranced by a family of holidaying Brits.
However, despite Ronan displaying perfect straight man comic timing in scenes with ultra-tween Sophie (Jessica Barden), the film loses its pace, sagging where it should steadily build tension, and fails to bring proper dimension to the title character.
For at its heart, Hanna is a story of revenge and culture shock, but the script (written by newcomer, Seth Lochhead, and doctored by Spooks scribe, David Farr) stretches beyond its feeble grasp, eyeing up themes of family, coming of age and genetic experimentation without truly committing to them.
Likewise, a faint undercurrent of fairytale is left to fester, neither buried in subtext nor inflated to the grotesque level of a Wild At Heart homage. Characters are referred to as witches, and others idly gather breadcrumbs in the palms of their hands, but these are just loose threads in a film full of them.
Hanna shows some promise, particularly in Ronan’s versatile performance, but between the overwrought style and underdeveloped script, there’s plenty for Wright to workshop, if he decides to make another, similarly-styled flick.