Currently, we’re in the throes of a Hollywood obsession to bring fairy tales to the big screen. It’s a fad that’s years away from peaking, leaving the sneaky triumph of “Hanna” all the more bewitching.
It’s not exactly “Snow White” or “Alice in Wonderland,” but a weird, swirling amalgamation of the Grimm Brothers’ catalog, sharpened to Ginsu standards by the Euro sensibilities of director Joe Wright. Think of a fantastical storybook odyssey crossed with “The Bourne Identity,” and you’ll have a slightly accurate read of the moviegoing pleasures of this surreal, neck-snapping revenge escapade.
Deep within in a German forest lives teenager Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) and her father, Erik (Eric Bana). Maintaining a woodsy fortress of solitude, Erik has raised Hanna to become an expert survivalist, with unmatched combat skills and worldly knowledge gathered from books. Reaching the end of her conditioning, Hanna looks to take on CIA ghoul Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), the woman who killed her mother.
When her initial plan goes awry, Hanna is pushed out into a world she’s never known, meeting peers (Jessica Barden, “Tamara Drewe”) and oily enemies (Tom Hollander), fighting her way back to Wiegler, who’s commenced her own hunt for the elusive father and daughter, stopping at nothing to see them both dead.
“Hanna” isn’t a flamboyant career summit for Joe Wright, previously seen spinning delicate dramatic plates in films such as “Atonement,” “Pride & Prejudice,” and “The Soloist.” “Hanna” feels more like a deserved morning stretch for the gifted filmmaker, who does away with the tight confines of structure and predictable confrontation to gamble with a dreamscape battlefield, pitting a young girl with enigmatic abilities against a reptilian government agent holding the secret to her very identity, working through a fairy tale landscape of both literal and fabricated designs.
This is a strange film, but its idiosyncrasy is the key component of its appeal. Wright isn’t building a bloody-knuckled fight club, but a woozy character-based actioner, twisting Hanna’s road trip to Hell into a Grimm acid trip, with hallucinatory European locations that range from Erik’s quaint forest cottage to a fairy tale theme park, where the climatic events unfold inside a lost literary playground.
Wright isn’t always understated, but he’s committed to the mood, breaking up bruiser conventions with symphonic asides, encouraging his cast to simmer in the unreality of it all, with Blanchett expectedly the most game cast member, amplifying Wiegler’s wicked witch-like role through sinister body language and pronounced fake teeth. While failing to equal Hanna in pure feral violence, Weigler is a formidable villain of blinding ego, able to creep out the room with merely a smile.
Forever a visually articulate filmmaker, Wright concentrates on discomfort and curiosity, observing Hanna as she enters a society she’s only explored through textbooks; she’s an albino killing machine forced to undergo adolescence in a few short days, receiving a special tutorial from Sophie (Barden), a bratty tourist who urges Hanna into make-up and the excitement of boys.
It’s a world of wonder written on Ronan’s face, who communicates utter control and undeniable mystification in this superbly contained performance. Wright’s camera loves her, staying tight on Hanna, following as she shuffles into danger, often unknowingly, relying on years of instinct pounded into her by Erik’s teachings. Ronan makes for a most unexpected action figure, one with stirring adolescent inquisitiveness and one heck of a left hook.
Also generating a stir are bravura camera moments from Wright, who can’t resist staging a slick tracking shot that itemizes Erik’s hand-to-hand skills. There’s a throbbing score from The Chemical Brothers as well, who play into the fairy tale mood with a few fancy touches (reinforced here through a killer’s taunting whistle), while supplying the attack scenes with a requisite electro punch.
While teeming with the outlandish and the eerie, “Hanna” avoids a rolling sense of action. It offers more of a staccato rhythm, seeping into the brain through a slow burn of oddity, occasionally hitting a few chaotic beats before it’s back on a unique prowl. Original and often fearless, “Hanna” is an exceptional cinematic wonderland.