Sometimes, it seems like it’s easier for me to write about the films I dislike as opposed to the films that I truly love. Case in point: I had little trouble writing up my thoughts on Anonymous and Straw Dogs but it’s taken me 8 months to write a formal review of my favorite film of 2011: Joe Wright’s pulp fairy tale, Hanna.
Taking place in a world much like our own but definitely not the same, Hanna opens in the frozen wilderness of Finland where 16 year-old Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) lives in an isolated cabin with her father, Erik (Eric Bana). In the film’s electrifying opening montage, we see that Hanna’s life revolves around training for combat, memorizing the encyclopedia, and memorizing several “false” back stories that have been prepared for her by her father. It also quickly becomes apparent that Erik has never allowed his daughter to be exposed to the real world. Finally, Erik tells Hanna that she is “now ready” to choose whether or not to open up a box containing an old transmitter that well alert the rest of the world of their existence. When Hanna finally opens the box, Erik promptly disappears and Hanna is left to fend for herself.
It quickly becomes apparent why Erik has spent years training his daughter because, by opening the box, Hanna has given away her presence to a coolly corrupt and ruthless CIA agent named Marissa (Played by Cate Blanchett and one of the most compelling villains in recent film history). Marissa has her own reasons for wanting both Erik and Hanna and she quickly sends a team to Erik’s cabin. Hanna is captured and transported to a memorably sterile CIA safehouse. In a shocking sudden burst of violence, Hanna escapes from the safehouse and finds herself having to survive in the “real world” while being pursued by Marissa.
Hanna, Marissa, and Erik eventually meet their fates in a desolate theme park that (in a neat bit of symbolism) is dedicated to the Brothers Grimm. Along the way, Hanna meets and travels with a likable family of English tourists, allowing her to have her first chance to actually experience a “normal” life and Marissa recruits Issacs, one of the creepiest film henchmen ever. Seriously. Isaacs is played by Tom Hollander and he was just so exquisitely sleazy that my skin crawled just watching him on-screen.
In many ways, Hanna may sound like a simple action film but, in the best tradition of the French new wave and the better grindhouse filmmakers, Joe Wright both embraces the conventions of the action film while unexpectedly subverting them and using them to tell a more universal story about the struggle to both establish and maintain identity in an increasingly soulless world. Much as Godard did before he gave up his artistic soul to political ideology, Joe Wright uses his cinematic talents to create a unique world that, while heavily stylized, also comments on our own existence. The Chemical Brothers, meanwhile, provide the perfect soundtrack to Wright’s pulp vision.
Hanna may be my favorite film of 2011 but it’s also the most underappreciated of the year, at least as far as Oscar season is concerned. There’s been so mention of the film’s score and a few critics’ groups have tossed a “young artist” mention or two at Saoirse Ronan but otherwise, the film has pretty much been ignored. I think part of the problem is that Hanna was released in April and not December. If the films had been released in December, I think Ronan would, at the very least, be a dark horse for best actress.
The main complaint that most critics seem to come up with when discussing Hanna is that the film is too much of a genre piece. Yes, it’s well-made and it’s well-acted and yes, it’s a compelling film with an intelligent script but, in the end, it’s just a genre piece. A fairly typical response comes from the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw who, after praising all of the film’s virtues, concluded with, “…(I)t ultimately squanders all of them, undone by a lack of subtlety and restraint.”
To this, I can only respond, “Oh? Really?” Seriously. Amazingly enough, some of the critics who criticized Hanna for a perceived lack of subtlety are the same critics who are now falling over themselves to praise the rehash of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. I suppose the difference here is that The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was directed by David Fincher and is the product of the American film establishment whereas Hanna was directed by Joe Wright and was produced by outsiders.
Those who claim that Hanna is too genre are missing the simple fact that Hanna is an insightful film that uses the conventions of the action genre as a metaphor for the sometime painful search for identity that every teenager (and especially every teenage girl) has ever had to go through. Myself, I never had to flee from government agents or battle assassins when I was 16 but I did have to start discovering how to survive in the real world, away from the security and comfort of home. As opposed to the pretend feminism of Fincher’s film, Hanna is a film that truly celebrates “girl power” and promotes independence and empowerment. It’s also, as far as I’m concerned, the best film of 2011.