A special thing happens when a real live filmmaker handles material that could have easily been schlock and Hannah is just such an occurrence.  Director Joe Wright has made a career out of Oscar fare. Wright found success in 2005 with a surprisingly accessible adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and enormous critical acclaim with 2007’s Atonement. In 2009, Wright would strike his first flat note in The Soloist, a production tailor-made for award season that folded under the weight of its of disingenuous self-importance. With Hannah, the director does major backpedalling, helming a project that will sadly, but almost certainly, be overlooked the Academy.

The titular Hannah (Saoirse Ronan) is an otherworldly young girl who’s spent the near entirety of her life raised in the snowy wilderness by her father (Eric Bana). But Hannah is no Laura Ingalls. Under the frequently brutal tutelage of her father, Hannah is fluent in many languages, a skilled hunter and frighteningly efficient fighter but this bizarre tranquility is forever shattered when the two are discovered by a ruthless American intelligence operative (Cate Blanchett).

This may all sound like a trite retread of tired “Bourne with a twist” territory but it something more, something special because Hannah is something with heart. Hannah’s story is one of globetrotting, nefarious military experiments and rogue CIA agents but it never loses its self. The “intrigue” of Hannah is not at its center. The script spends little time on shady governmental relations and slick espionage, instead focusing on the characters. Not as bureaucratic pawns but as people.  This is a deeply human film, though its heroine may be something more. What could have easily been a distant, cold jaunt never loses sight of its intimate “coming of age” roots. Hannah is an ethereal assassin, so pale she almost glows and so deadly that she nearly repulses. But only nearly. She may turn a tender hug into a neck-snapping murder but the viewer never forgets that she is very young and very scared. Perhaps it is here that Hannah’s greatest strength lies. Never once does the film wallow in the novelty of the stale “female ass-kicker”. Hannah does not drop cute lines before or after a kill. Taking a life couldn’t be less extraordinary for her and is certainly not something to quip. Perhaps the most important, admirable and unique quality of Hannah is that its young female hero runs the course of the film without ever being overtly sexualized. Never does she don a formfitting costume, spending most of the film in loose, gender-neutral clothing. Villains don’t scoff at the idea of “fighting a girl”. Ronan cuts a slender, almost sickly figure but she is never less than intimidating. This is not to say that Hannah is rendered genderless. She is distinctly feminine at times. Unlike James Cameron’s heroines, she is never overwhelmingly masculine. Hannah isn’t tough for a girl or for a kid but for a person.

One ought never say that Hannah feels particularly realistic. Quite the contrary, in fact, as it wears its storybook influences on its sleeve. The film, while sharp, has a dreamy fog about it, spanning barren deserts to broken down amassment parks. This is a fairytale every bit as fractured as any featured on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. The film is free of dragons, goblins, potions and spells but it has a witch as wicked as any in Blanchett’s Marissa. She’s a callous, sterile professional that Blanchett plays with disturbing mix of restraint and relish. Her minions, a perverse group of thugs, may be even more unsettling. Hannah is no fairytale princess but she is a girl in distress like many others. She is Dorothy in search of the Emerald City. She is Matilda using her special powers. She is Alice through the looking glass.

See Hannah but don’t go in expecting Salt. Expect something much, much better.

 

 


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