Y’all, can I just say that I am super-cray swamped. Between the day job, the night job (writing and Dirt Road Books), I’m not finding too much time for fangirling.
Why can’t somebody pay me to professionally fangirl as a day job? I mean, really.
ANYWAY. Don’t forget, there are groovy things coming up in terms of shows and films to watch.
Also, this time of year around here, there are always comic/fan conventions to attend. Also in other places around the world. So hit that link for the listings to find out if there’s one near you. The big ones tend to be harder to get into. You have to sign up on the sites before a specific date (I missed New York’s, dang it) and only people registered on the site are eligible to purchase tickets. It’s cuz some of these things are freaking huge and this helps organize and also helps deter ticket scalping.
Okay. Let’s chat about this weird little thriller called Hanna.
AND here’s your requisite SPOILER WARNING. So bear that in mind.
I first saw this a couple of years ago. It was originally released in 2011 and at the time, I wanted to catch it, but for whatever reasons didn’t, so I saw it later via Netflix. And then I just watched it again a couple nights ago because it was on cable and I looked up and noticed that it was just starting and I thought I’d watch it again and chit-chat about it because it is kind of a haunting film and aspects of it do stay with you.
The film opens with views of a snow-covered landscape and the camera shows you ice on bodies of water, a winter-coated animal (ermine, perhaps?), and then travels into a stretch of forest and we see a figure clothed in furs, who appears to have a bow and arrow. Then we see a reindeer working its way through the forest and we get a glimpse of the human figure watching it. The lower half of the figure’s face is covered, but we see a blue eye, staring hard at us, though the figure is actually watching the reindeer.
We soon find out this figure is Hanna (actress Saoirse Ronan), who is fifteen, and she shoots the reindeer with an arrow but it doesn’t die right away, so she chases it down and as it’s lying in the snow dying, she pulls a pistol out and finishes it that way. While she’s prepping it to travel, a man appears behind her and says, “You’re dead,” after which ensues a fight as the two of them spar back and forth and it becomes clear that this man is training her in some serious black ops shit because she’s pretty good at the combat. From this scene, we also get the sense that he does this a lot to test her readiness for any situation, and it drives her to work harder.
Hanna has been living almost all of her life in this isolated wilderness of Finland with this man, who she calls “Papa.” At night, he reads to her from encyclopedias, as if he’s doing data entry on her, and stuffing all kinds of facts into her head. She speaks at least five languages, but she’s never heard music, never read fiction (with the exception of a book of Grimms’ fairy tales), and never left this wilderness, and we’re wondering, what the hell is he training her for? And more to the point, why are they so far removed from everything?
Turns out Papa is Erik (played by Eric Bana), a former CIA operative from Germany who clearly went off the grid and as the plot unfolds, we find out that he knows something that cannot be made public — it would prove really damaging to the CIA and probably other spy outfits. We also find out that he is still being hunted because of his knowledge, most prominently by agent Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett with a Southern accent. No, really.).
Wiegler wants to finish Erik off, but she’s also interested in Hanna, and it becomes clear about halfway through why she’s so interested in her. Hanna is special, part of an “experiment” the CIA was engaged in to genetically alter children and turn them into super soldiers (it’s always a damn super soldier, people!) and Hanna is one of them. She has no idea about this; all she knows, basically, is that her mother was murdered and her father spirited her away to this place in the woods where he trains her and educates her and prepares her, basically, to take on Marissa. That is, to assassinate her.
She informs him one night that she is “ready” to do this, so he brings out a beacon that when triggered will alert the CIA to their presence. She must be sure, he says, before she triggers it. Some more time passes as Hanna contemplates the beacon and no doubt thinks about being ready and what that means. And then Erik goes hunting and she triggers the beacon. He comes back and sees that she has, and he very matter-of-factly gets himself prepared to go back into civilization and rendezvous with her in Germany. He leaves her alone in the cabin and she waits.
A team of agents arrives and the first two enter the cabin. She kills them handily then positions herself in her bunk, as if she had nothing to do with it and indeed, it seems the team thinks Erik did it, and they take her into custody, treating her as if she is a scared little girl.
Ha ha, joke’s on them.
They bring Hanna to an underground CIA facility (turns out it’s in Morocco because why the hell not) where they’re questioning her and Hanna, of course, wants to complete her mission and kill Marissa. So she asks for her, and Marissa watches all of this via video. They send in another female agent who pretends to be Marissa and Hanna takes her out with her bare freaking hands and then escapes from the facility. She thinks she has killed the real Marissa, but as we know, that’s not the case, so the rest of the film is a cat-and-mouse game, with Hanna being dogged by Marissa and some surreal assassin henchmen she hires that include a couple of skinheads (weirdly, they’re SHARPs — Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice) and a creepy carnie guy who is also an ex-agent.
The film leads us to a confrontation between Marissa and Hanna, set in an abandoned amusement park in Berlin, which lends the whole thing a veneer of that surreal element I mentioned earlier, and it actually feels like a dark fairy tale, as if it’s one of the Grimms writing the screenplay with help from David Lynch.
And somehow, it mostly works.
There are elements of the whimsical and amusing, as Hanna manages to fall in with an English Bohemian family in Morocco that includes a daughter (Sophie, played by Jessica Barden) around Hanna’s age and a younger boy. Hanna has never interacted with people close to her own age, so watching her trying to figure out how to hang with them provides a little bit of comic relief though there’s tension, too, because we know Marissa is coming and Hanna still has to get to Germany to rendezvous with Erik, and the longer she stays with this family, the greater the danger to all of them.
Things to look for:
Teenaged assassin manages to still be a teen. That was one of the really intriguing things about this film, I thought, was how Hanna interacted with the world outside her forests. She assesses and adapts as any trained agent would, but she also has an innocence and naiveté about her and a moral compass that make her oddly endearing. You root for her, even knowing what she’s capable of, because you see a teen on the cusp of womanhood trying to come to grips with a lot of different things. Like any other teen, she’s looking for her place in the world, in spite of what has been instilled within her, and Saoirse Ronan nails this paradox so very well.
GRRLpower. Hanna is a badass. She may be innocent in a lot of other things, but when she goes into killing machine mode, she’s quick, efficient, and strong. This movie centers on her, and on the primary villain’s (Marissa) obsession with finding her and killing her. And Marissa is also an efficient killing machine, though she apparently sold her soul to hellspawn during her career, which positions her as a counterpoint to Hanna. Is this Hanna’s fate if she continues on this path? Regardless, the central tenet of this film is all about female characters. Hanna, Marissa, and to a lesser extent, Sophie, the friend Hanna makes along the way. Strong female rep throughout this film.
That fairy tale flavor. From the opening scenes, there’s a brooding sense of mysticism over this movie and indeed, the creators and crew intended that. So you get overarching fairy tale-ish scenes. Girl in the forest. Cabin in the forest. Winter landscape. The fire and various lanterns in the cabin at night — it feels like Hansel and Gretel are going to drop by for some candy and assassin training.
Then the location shifts to the sterile, futuristic interior of the underground CIA facility then to the desert landscapes and villages of Morocco, furthering the sense of a young woman on a fairy tale journey to magical places, where she finds friends (the Bohemian family) and a sense of acceptance even though it’s clear she’s not at all like other people.
You’ll see other elements of fairy tales, in the metaphors involving animals. Marissa, for example, is obsessed with her teeth (big bad wolf), and we see the elements in the final confrontation in the abandoned amusement park, the rotting hulks of fantasy and fun now lending a macabre edge to the scene.
Cinematography. It’s beautifully done, and the lighting and costumes and settings lend a lot of richness to the pallette, and even in the darker (as in mood) scenes, there’s a richness that, again, gives you that fairy tale feeling.
Tenuous exploration of sexual identity. There’s a scene in which Hanna and Sophie are lying next to each other in a tent (remember, Sophie’s family is all Bohemian travel and camp) and they’re talking, as adolescents do, and the two kiss. There’s nothing overtly sexual about it; it seems more of a recognition of a shared connection, and Sophie has told Hanna that she considers Hanna her friend — something Hanna has never had. Hanna is rather bemused about the kiss, and nothing beyond it happens between them that we see, but it was a moment in which Hanna, again, is engaged in an experience, and trying to figure out where she fits. So there’s almost a clinical feeling to it, but it’s a genuine expression of affection between them, and Hanna feels that, and accepts it. She also has a moment with a young man who is interested in kissing her, but she freaks out a little and basically ninja’s him to the ground and puts him in a hold. I’m thinking she preferred Sophie’s approach, but regardless, Hanna doesn’t have a defined sexual identity, so any interactions she has along those lines are, as I noted, tenuous, but play into the idea of a young woman coming of age.
Cate Blanchett is downright creepy. If you watch Orphan Black, the character of Rachel is a lot like Blanchett’s. Driven, icy, and obsessed with little details. Like her teeth. Seriously. And shoes. There’s some kind of thing here with shoes, but it doesn’t quite pan out, unless that’s part of the whole fairy tale mystique and a sideways shout-out to Cinderella.
And there’s the obsession with finding Erik and, more importantly, finding Hanna with the sole purpose of eliminating them. Blanchett wields a Southern accent (which seemed to slide into different variations) that gives extra-creepy to this character, who moves in quick, clipped bursts while her accent is a velvety drawl completely at odds with her demeanor.
Quirky secondary characters. As Hanna goes on her “quest” (another fairy tale element), she meets people along the way. Sophie is a teen trying too hard to be an adult but she’s also funny and the way she brings Hanna into her circle is really endearing. Her parents are a mixture of bouigie Bohemian and they snipe at each other, lending a little bit of teen angst to the film. Who doesn’t remember parental figures having stress with each other? The character of Isaacs (Tom Hollander) — the carnie ex-agent Marissa brings on to help her — is sadistic and almost campy. Which kind of tropes him as the evil queer-coded character, but he could also just be a performer and that’s how he views the world. When he’s closing in to kill/maim/torture he whistles little tunes, which I think puts him toward the top of the creepy scale. Oh, and he also runs a club that caters to bizarre sexual tastes (lending more fuel to the depraved non-heterosexual trope).
And speaking of seriously GRIM fairy tales, here’s a very short bit with Isaacs, the ex-agent Marissa hires to find Hanna, and one of his henchmen.
Chemical Brothers score. This is generally a tense, tightly-wound film that, unlike many thrillers, does not have a constant onslaught of noise and constant movement. So it’s quiet in many ways, in the ways Hanna communicates and how she does her work and how she approaches new situations. She is, in a sense, like that reindeer in the wilderness. Wary, careful, quiet. The Chemical Brothers created a soundtrack that matches the mood onscreen, from ghostly somber to thumping, frenetic electronica in action scenes that meld with the sped-up camera sequences, to give you a sense of palpable motion and crazy. The soundtrack is on Spotify, if you’d like to check some of it out.
Yes, there were some things that didn’t work. The backstory is a bit weak — I never really got a well-developed sense of Marissa as this looming villainous presence in Erik’s life, or why she wants him and Hanna dead and what really is driving her to do it because it seems almost rote for her, as if she’s been doing it so long that she forgot why she was doing it in the first place, but has a vague sense of needing to do it anyway. And I already mentioned the potentially sadistic queer character, which is another trope: the psychopathic or sociopathic queer character in media.
You’ll also probably clue in to some other tropes, like the rebellious teen girl (Sophie) and the straight-laced teen friend (Hanna, ironically) and the discombobulated parents as well as the ice queen agent (Marissa), and you probably won’t find yourself feeling like you really got into any of the characters’ heads. There’s a distance, here, between viewer and characters, and a sparseness to the filming, which is reminiscent of some European films.
That is, the filming is mostly close quarters, unlike big action films where you get sweeping panoramas of city-scapes or landscapes and lots of wide-angle shots of action scenes. Filming like this — in close quarters that keeps action confined to a certain space — makes for a more intimate association with the violence in this film, and lends some elements of claustrophobia. It’s designed to make you a little uncomfortable, I think, and filming like that is a good way to do it.
Overall, this is not your typical thriller, so if that’s what you’re in the mood for, this isn’t it. But if you’re interested in an atypical, weird thriller-ish film with some great acting and surrealism all tied up with a coming-of-age/rite-of-passage grrlpower story, you might enjoy this. It’s definitely off the beaten path, but sometimes that’s where you can find some cool things.
Happy Friday, and may the odds be ever in your favor.