This is a spoiler-free review based on the first four episodes of Hanna.
When the Hanna feature film was released in 2011, starring a young Saoirse Ronan as a 15-year-old spy trained by her ex-CIA operative father (Eric Bana) and sought after by cut-throat CIA agent Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), pop culture was in a very different place. It’s no longer enough to plug a girl or a woman into a traditionally male action role and wait for the accolades. Luckily, the Hanna TV series, set to premiere on Amazon Prime on March 29th, has more to offer than superficial gender-swap shock value.
As far as adaptations go, Hanna isn’t precious about its source material, which is somewhat surprising given the fact the TV show is written by the feature’s co-scriptwriter David Farr, who also adapted similarly suspense-driven The Night Manager for the TV serial format. The Hanna TV show follows a similar plot as the feature film it’s based on, but Farr thankfully understands that an eight-hour television show is a very different format than a two-hour movie, and restructures the story to fill the space in compelling ways.
Unlike the film, we begin not with Hanna, but with Erik Heller (played here by Joel Kinnaman), as he fights to kidnap baby Hanna from a mysterious facility. Immediately, the action sequence sets up the stakes of this world. Erik doesn’t pull his punches, literally beating a security guard into a furnace and to his death in the show’s opening minutes.
Kinnaman’s The Killing co-star Mireille Enos stars as the cold, ruthless, and very determined Marissa Wiegler. The cat to his mouse, Wiegler is the kind of person who will chase a baby across the eastern European countryside with no qualms about who she hurts or kills along the way.
We catch back up with Baby Hanna roughly 15 years later, when she is coming-of-age in the middle of the Polish wilderness, with only her withholding father for company. They spend their days doing the necessary work of wilderness survival, as well as training young Hanna in all of the skills a spy might need to succeed in the world beyond the borders of the woods they live in.
However, while Hanna may know how to kill a man in multiple different ways and the population of most European cities, she doesn’t know so much of the basic knowledge most teen girls take for granted. When Hanna is forced out of the wilderness she has always called home and separated from her father, she is on her own and meeting new people for the first time in her life.
Hanna, by giving the eponymous teen girl the point-of-view, challenges the efficacy of the Papa Wolf trope, as Erik’s insistence to keep Hanna in the dark about her past causes more and more problems. The TV adaptation really uses the extra screen time to make more complex the relationship between father and daughter. Erik is both more frustrating and more sympathetic than his cinematic counterpart, as the character gets a more developed backstory here.
Of course, this is Hanna’s story, and we stick close to her fish-out-of-water perspective as she searches for clues about her own mysterious birth and the role her father played in it. Like Ronan before her, Esme Creed-Miles anchors the story in vital ways. Without a solid lead, this story would not work, and Creed-Miles is more than up for the challenge—as convincing in Hanna’s moments of childlike curiosity as she is in her moments of steely-eyed killing.
When it comes to the kind of sexual harrassment and violence I fear for girls and women both in real life and on the screen, the experience of watching Hanna is radically stress-free; its cathartic, even, in the ways Hanna herself has never been socialised to expect the all-too-common scenarios, so removed from society has she been. Once Hanna leaves the woods, there are several instances when boys or men try to exert physical power over her, and just completely fail.
Hanna‘s tensions come in other ways, and this series is very good at maintaining a simmering level of suspense that boils over in the story’s many action-driven moments, which are varied enough in the first four episodes that they never become redundant. We care about the action because we care about the characters—or at least we care about Hanna, a girl coming-of-age in some seriously shitty circumstances, and we are fascinated by the game of chess she is caught in.
Visually, the show looks great, with frequent moments when the budget really shows: Hanna stargazes with a boy on top of a massive satellite dish. Later in the series, she ducks into a cavernous cathedral as a choir sings; the camera pulls back to show our protagonist amidst the ornate statues, marble columns, and candelit chandeliers of the church. You can’t fake this stuff, and it sets Hanna apart from not only most action fare on TV, but most serialised drama period.
The soundtrack is emotive, and heavy on the female singer/songwriters. It fittingly features Karen O’s “Anti-Lullaby” as Hanna’s recurring, angsty theme, as well as teen girl pop hits like Billie Eilish’s “bellyache” to remind us that there is part of Hanna who just wants to be a “normal” teen.
Like the feature film before it, Hanna is good at juggling multiple genres and making it look easy. Unlike the feature film, it has the time to really dive into Hanna’s struggle to understand her place in a world she has only just been permitted to become a part of. The series is at its very best not in its nailbiting car chases or gunfights (although those are great), but in the quieter scenes of Hanna wandering through a new city or seeing a “normal” family in routine action, and trying to process it all.
Hanna may be a trained killer, but she’s also just a kid, and the suspense of waiting for her to determine how she will use her power is one of the most fascinating parts of the show, and a driving question that puts the agency firmly in the hands of our female protagonist.
In this era of #PeakTV, media can’t just be good to succeed; it has to be great. Hanna is great: that rare TV adaptation that isn’t afraid to build on its source material. With the extra room for slow-burn character exploration that the TV format offers and its movie-like action, Hanna feels like the best of both the television and cinematic worlds.
Hanna arrives on Amazon Prime Video on Friday the 29th of March.