One online review compares Hanna, the new actioner by Joe Wright (Atonement), to the story of "Little Red Riding Hood," a rather facile analogy based on the appearance of a giant Big Bad Wolf's head at a Grimm's Fairy Tale-themed amusement park in the film.
But one need only look at the film's eponymous albino heroine to see that the more apt analogy is to Grimm's "Snow White." Like in that story, a heroine must initially depend on the protection of a huntsman in order to evade an evil stepmother who plots to kill her. Where it differs is that the self-reliant Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) never needs a dashing prince to rush to her rescue.
She, instead, capitalizes on the survivalist education imparted to her by a rogue spy, Erik Heller (Eric Bana), in order to outmaneuver her pursuer, Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), a lethal CIA operative who holds the key to Hanna's genesis.
The fairy tale quality is worth mentioning because it distinguishes Hanna from other thrillers in the "killing machine" sub-genre, i.e. the Bourne series, La Femme Nikita, Salt, etc. Like all of those films, the essential story is the same. Hanna has been trained to the peak of physical and mental perfection. She has been living off the grid (in this case with her father/mentor) and out of the reach of some black-ops organization. Her re-introduction into society alerts authorities who wish to eliminate her for nefarious reasons.
Unlike those other films, it is this last plot thread which is most rewarding. It provides fodder for the precocious sixteen-year-old Ronan to play up the countless fish-out-of-water situations Hanna runs into when she joins the real world. Where the easy beat to play would be humor—and, in fact, he kind of dances on the edge of this—director Wright never tips over into comedic territory (at least not overtly). Hanna's exposure to civilization, the increasing callousness and cynicism that grows within her with every ruthless encounter she experiences with her pursuers, is actually quite tragic, a byproduct of her father's need to shelter her from the evil Wiegler.
Blanchett's Wiegler is as precise, wicked, and vain as Snow White's stepmother, obsessively brushing her teeth to the point where her gums bleed. Primarily, she pursues Hanna to eliminate a dangling thread from a long-ago scuttled, secret operation she conducted with Heller. But there is the intimation that Wiegler envies Hanna not only for her superiority in the art of killing but because the girl sees Heller as a father figure.
This jealousy may stem from the fact that Heller betrayed Wiegler when the project was terminated, choosing to flee with Hanna and her mother instead of staying with Wiegler. Wiegler is positively gleeful when she executes Hanna's genetic line, her mother and maternal grandmother, slowly working her way down to the girl herself.
Wright brings artistry to this genre piece, a lyricism I was hoping wouldn't disappear from such thrillers after the failure of last year's underrated The American. There is a thematic symmetry to the opening and closing of this movie, both instances in which Hanna is shot in a head-on close-up as she apologetically, but coldly, takes a life. That mirror situation is quite obvious. What is more subtle is the visual symmetry in the way Wright shoots Hanna and her evil "stepmother," Wiegler. In the film's flashback scene, Wright uses the same kind of close-up when Wiegler apologizes just before taking the life of Hanna's mother.
Though Wright's use of imagery from Grimm's Fairy Tales might strike some as overt and redundant, I found it in line with the film's mythic overtones. Besides, Hanna doesn't get to such blatant symbolism until the movie's closing act, where by then, the film has subtly shifted into skewed, comic book mode and the imagery seems appropriate. In keeping with this shift, the propulsive score by the Chemical Brothers has by then also shifted from the techno-flavored dissonance found in the film's early acts to a circus-like electronica more suited to the movie's climax.
The lion's share of the credit for Hanna's success should ultimately go to actor Saoirse Ronan (The Lovely Bones), though. She almost imperceptibly modulates her visage as the wild child despite playing a character whose primary mode is a chilling blankness. For the audience to identify with such a closed-off character's emotions within what is perceptibly a narrow-range of expressiveness is not something easy to pull off.
Just ask the older, presumably more experienced, Noomi Rapace, who would still occasionally slip into woodenness despite otherwise playing the titular Girl with the Dragon Tattoo with great aplomb. Ronan displays an instinctive grasp for the character of Hanna. Wright and the viewer are the beneficiaries of Ronan's talent. And Hanna ultimately surpasses its conventional constraints because of it.