I went to see Hanna this afternoon, for the second time. Aside from that implied endorsement, here are a few things you need to know:
The title character is German, so her name is pronounced Honna. The lead actress is Saoirse Ronan, whose name is pronounced Sur-sha (if we believe the internet).
Although it looks like a spy movie and fully 3/4ths of the characters are current or former spies, it's not a spy movie. Hanna could be considered a full-tilt, balls to the wall action movie but it's really a coming of age movie. It's a character study about Hanna finding out who she is. Unlike your typical 17-year-old girl finding herself, Hanna is a killing machine.
Hanna has been raised by her father in seclusion in northern Finland. It's possible that she's never met another person and definitely no one her own age. She's never used electricity or heard music. Her father has raised her to be strong, independent and lethal. He drills her incessantly, repeating "Always be ready, even in your sleep," and "Adapt or die." That last mantra is really the theme of the movie.
The father never kept from Hanna that her mother was killed by a CIA officer named Marissa Weigler. That name sounds more ominous when said with a German accent. He trains Hanna to get revenge. After giving her lukewarm warnings about how dangerous it will be to start down the revenge path, he gives her a device that will attract the attention of American intelligence and allow her to come face to face with her mother's killer. Really, he programmed her for this mission from infancy. She had no choice.
The rest of the story is a cat & mouse game where the CIA peoples don't understand that they are the mice. Hanna has to travel across half of Europe to catch up to her father and she learns much about herself in the process.
Here's what I liked about Hanna. It ends up with a necessary confrontation but gets there in unexpected and leisurely ways, many of which you don't normally find in an action movie.
Director Joe Wright is highly talented, helming Pride and Prejudice (the Keira Knightley version) and The Soloist, and worked with Saoirse before, in 2007's Atonement, which netted her an Academy Award nomination for Supporting Actress. She was also fine in City of Ember (a terrible movie otherwise) and OK in The Lovely Bones.
Wright is so talented he couldn't resist showing off in Hanna. There is one scene that takes place with a single shot. The father steps off a bus, scoots across a lane of traffic, walks through the terminal, out the other side, down a long sidewalk, down an escalator, then gets into a fight with four spies in a large underground plaza, and then walks out. It's a three minute plus shot and it's beautiful, although unnecessary. Wright did it before in Atonement, with a much bigger wartime shot. I like the idea of continuous shots but this one seemed like showing off.
Much of Hanna involves Hanna seeing the outside world for the first time. When she escapes custody, she takes refuge in a rundown motel. The clerk turns on a light switch, which she finds mesmerizing. Same for the TV. She flips out when the phone rings. Much of this discovery is made with pounding techno music assaulting our ears so we get a hint of what she feels. Yet, Hanna adapts, as later in the movie she stops at an internet cafe and surfs as well as anyone.
There's another scene that I found remarkable yet it passes almost unnoticed. Her host in Berlin begins to make waffles and gets out a carton of eggs. Hanna asks for one, he tosses it to her, she catches it, cracks it open and swallows the contents in a single motion. It's a great scene that tells you almost everything you need to know about her yet it's over in a few seconds.
Although I'm raving about Hanna - perhaps not in ways the studio might approve of - there are a few downsides. Cate Blanchett, one of the best actresses working today, uses a clumsy southern accent while playing Marissa Weigler. Never mind that Hanna takes place in Europe, where she was one of a very few people speaking American, and that Cate is immediately recognizable as not being from the American south, the accent really gave no additional element to the character. It seemed like a distracting quirk more than anything else. Her shoes and flossing fetishes were much more interesting.
Worst thing about Hanna, though, is that the studio put a spoiler in the commercials. When Hanna is captured, she turns the tables and kills a CIA officer and some guards. That's no spoiler - it's in the commercials. The scene is powerful, elegant, long and shocking. It would have been gasp-worthy if the idiots in marketing hadn't used it. It may well have been considered one of the best movie moments of 2011, if only it hadn't been shown to us before we even saw the movie.
Let's end on a positive note. I mentioned that Hanna is as much of a character study as it is an action adventure. In her travels, Hanna meets up with an English family, with the mother played by Olivia Williams, a favorite of mine and late of my beloved Dollhouse. It becomes apparent rather quickly that the mother is much more in tune with Hanna than her own daughter. Hanna senses it as well but also knows that she is well beyond needing a mother anymore. She has adapted.