Movie Review: A Grim Fairy Tale

Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) is a 16-year-old girl living in the wilderness of Finland with her father, Erik (Eric Bana), a CIA agent gone rogue. Cut off from the world, with only her father as mentor, Hanna is trained to use her remarkable strength and stamina to become the perfect assassin. Erik gives Hanna a mission as a coming-of-age ritual: find and kill intelligence operative Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), with whom Erik has a shady past. Thrust into a world Hanna knows little about, she and Marissa engage in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse while Hanna discovers some shocking revelations about her own identity.

Film: Hanna
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett, Tom Hollander
Written by: David Farr and Seth Lochhead
Directed by: Joe Wright
Genre: Action, thriller, drama
Rating: 8 out of 10 / A-


Written in 2006, but left unproduced for years, Hanna is a stark, gripping take on both action films and fairy tales. It possesses thrilling chase and fight sequences, but it also tells the story of a lost girl, a wicked queen and a quest for self-knowledge. Writers David Farr and Seth Lochhead and director Joe Wright have created a transcontinental tale of moral ambiguity and fractured psyches that is both classic in its themes and completely modern in its execution. This is what would happen if Snow White decided to fight back in the most brutal ways possible.

The film is first and foremost gorgeous to behold. Starting with a near-silent montage of a pure white Finnish snowscape, the images are arresting and beautifully framed. Wright always knows exactly what he’s doing with the camera, and he often likes to put the viewer into a character’s perspective. Alternating between shaky-cam, long circular takes and static backdrops, Wright’s images help to keep the viewer in sync with the characters, eliciting sympathy, disgust, paranoia, or any other emotion one could think of. This extends even to the fight scenes, including a brilliantly choreographed brawl in a German subway station filmed in one very long, slowly spinning take. All of it is underlined with a wicked score by the Chemical Brothers, beautiful, vicious and mysterious all at once.

Circles appear almost constantly in the film. The opening shot is a river encircling a small piece of land. Tunnels, cameras and eyes are recurring motifs. While some of the symbolism is obvious—history repeating, events coming full circle—it’s also significant in understanding how Hanna views the world. Hanna is a girl who has been raised on encyclopedias. She has little in the way of social skills, and aside from combat training, almost no ability to practically utilize her knowledge. She is constantly watching and absorbing the world, which in turn is constantly watching this new, fresh creature who views even mundane things like an electric tea kettle with awe and suspicion.

But circles alone cannot convey Hanna’s thoughts, and that’s why we have Saoirse Ronan to help us out. Ronan is riveting as Hanna. At age 13, Ronan was nominated for an Academy Award for Atonement (also directed by Joe Wright), and it’s clear that it wasn’t a fluke. Ronan is immediately believable and sympathetic as Hanna, even when she performs some of the most horrible actions. She also handles the physical aspects quite well, which helps to completely solidify the character. Hanna is a killing machine, but she is also a teenage girl who has seen almost nothing of the world. She can be a ruthless, kickboxing avenger in one scene and a confused, awe-struck innocent in the next, and Ronan does it all effortlessly.

The film focuses on only a handful of characters, with most of the supporting characters left intentionally blank. This is, after all, a fairy tale, and nobody wrote chapters about the wicked stepmother’s personal assistant. Erik Bana handles his character very well, and he is like Hanna in many ways. He can dispatch opponents with cold, calculating efficiency, but he also truly loves his daughter and believes in her. Cate Blanchett is, of course, wonderful as Marissa, a frigid, humorless, self-loathing woman who has chosen to fill the emptiness of her life with her job duties. When Hanna and Erik threaten those duties, her armor cracks, and Blanchett is hypnotic to watch as Marissa goes ever so slightly more mad with each passing scene. Finally, Tom Hollander oozes Eurotrash sleaze as an amoral mercenary hired by Marissa to help track Hanna down.

The film only falters toward the end, when the fairy tale allegory becomes altogether too literal, set in a German theme park dedicated to the Brothers Grimm. Until then, it’s relegated mostly to inference and metaphor, and bringing it so forcefully to the forefront dulls the impact of the final scenes by just the slightest amount. There’s an exposition dump toward the end of the film, as well, explaining the connections between Hanna, Erik and Marissa which would have been better delivered in small portions throughout the film. However, these are both relatively minor flaws in an otherwise well-done film.

With a tight script, a gripping visual palette and three highly skilled actors in the main roles, Hanna is a dark, twisted fairy tale. “I just missed your heart,” Hanna says to an elk she shoots at the beginning of the film. The film, however, is almost right on target.