Silver Screen: Hanna ****

Silver Screen: Hanna  ****
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Silver Screen: Hanna ****
Bryan Miller

Atonement and Pride and Prejudice director Joe Wright attempts to fuse art-house and action flicks in Hanna, which stars Saoirse Ronan as the title character, a teenage killer without remorse or presumably any pigment in her skin.

It's a delicate balance Wright and screenwriters Seth Lochhead and David Farr are attempting to strike, one they occasionally achieve but can only maintain for stretches. The film is at its most meditative during the opening scenes, in which we meet Hanna, a girl still a few years from adulthood but clearly wise beyond her years. She lives alone and off the grid in a small, winterbound cabin with her father Erik (Eric Bana), a former secret agent who now spends all of his days teaching his daughter survival skills. They hunt, tend to the fires, spar, target-shoot, and study science and languages; it's somewhere between Thoreau's Walden and the training montage in Rocky IV.

Erik's home-school assassin-training courses are not abstract survivalist paranoia, but have a very specific purpose. On the day Hanna proves she can best her father in combat, he produces a black box with a tantalizing red button. It's Hanna's choice when to press the button, but when she does, their years-in-planning mission will begin.

Erik's plan involves the steely Marissa (Cate Blanchett), his former government handler who has a deep and mysterious interest in tracking down the father / daughter pair. By the time Marissa's squadron of armed commandos reaches the cabin, Erik is long gone, with plans to reconnect with his daughter later at a designated rendezvous point. Hanna is still in the cabin, seemingly waiting to be taken-- but that's all just part of the plan.

The first hour or so of Hanna is exceptional. The deliberate pace of the opening scenes picks up slightly when our heroine is brought to the cold confines of a government holding facility, a spartan and mechanized purgatory that's the polar opposite of her pastoral home, then jolts into high gear with the first big action sequence. A percussive, techno-laced score by the Chemical Brothers lends further urgency to Hanna's escape and flight from her captors, a sequence Wright captures in a flurry of bold images and dizzying camera swoops. From there on out, the film recalls the frenetic energy of Run Lola Run as well as the globehopping and austerity of The Bourne Identity, with a dash of Leon (a.k.a., The Professional) thrown into the mix.

Aside from a couple of decent battlefield sequences in Atonement, Wright is best known for his handling of restrained emotions and aristocratic manners in British literary adaptations, not shoot 'em ups, but here he directs the action with aplomb, capturing the speed of Hanna's flight as well as the ruthless efficiency with which she and her father dispatch their pursuers. Bana, no stranger to ass-kicking, gets the coolest choreography when he engages in hand-to-hand combat with a squadron of guards in a train station, but Hanna gets in her licks, too. The otherwise delicate-looking Ronan, who was excellent as the precocious Briony in Wright's Atonement, is surprisingly credible as a killer. She has the beauty of a frozen lake, glimmering and hard at the surface but suggesting something deep and swirling underneath. She's fantastic.

So too does the movie suggest greater depths beneath its faç ade. Wright clearly has greater ambitions than hyperkinetic entertainment, and for a long stretch he's able to juggle plot machinations, character studies, and painterly image-making so deftly as to make it look easy. When Hanna, on the run, hooks up with a bourgeoise British family headed by free-spirited mother Rachel (Olivia Williams), the contrast between Hanna and the family's spoiled daughter (Jessica Barden) throws our heroine's plight into sharp relief. But while her friendship with the English teen princess highlights Hanna's otherworldliness and strength, it also reveals the gaps in her education, all the things her father was unable to teach them in her hermit's hideaway in the woods. The tagline of the film is "Adapt or die," and for Hanna, the greatest challenge is often not dueling with hired guns but finding her way in the mysterious order of society.

Unfortunately, Wright eventually drops most of these interesting character digressions to return to the thriller plot, which grows more conventional as the film nears its disappointingly predictable climax. An overbaked final setpiece, filmed in a ridiculous broken-down amusement park, not to mention an over-the-top, androgynous secondary villain (Tom Hollander, the prissy villain of Pirates of the Caribbean), brings the movie more in line with conventional action fare. When at last the movie's secrets are revealed, the plot is, in retrospect, terribly conventional. For the most part, though, the execution is exceptional. Wright's movie may turn out to be less art film with a thriller's momentum and more action movie with a heart, but it's still as beguiling as its namesake.