Hollywood filmmakers appear to be craving easily marketable stories in the public domain, and are following the trail of breadcrumbs back to the tales of the Brothers Grimm. Recently, movie studios have lined up projects such as Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters and rival versions of Snow White, including one with Julia Roberts as the wicked stepmother.
Atonement director Joe Wright takes the shortcut to Grandma's house with Hanna, although the film's answer to Little Red Riding Hood could kill the wolf with her bare hands. Written by David Farr and Seth Lochhead, Hanna uses the trappings of a Bourne Identity-style international spy thriller to recount a coming-of-age story with echoes of Snow White or Sleeping Beauty. The eccentric espionage movie frequently loses its sense of direction, but thrives thanks to its intriguingly resourceful heroine.
Teenage Saoirse Ronan plays Hanna, whom we first see tracking a caribou through a snowy wilderness. She and her father Erik (Eric Bana) wear furs and live in a cottage so remote and free of modern amenities, the film could take place centuries ago. Only when we notice items like a Luger handgun or the photo-booth snapshots of Hanna's late mother do we realize that modern civilization is somewhere just past the horizon. Hanna's father has trained her in isolation since infancy, making her astonishingly adept with languages and hand-to-hand combat, even though she doesn't know what things like music are.
One day Erik unearths a radio machine with a prominent switch and tells Hanna that if she's ready to enter the greater world, all she has to do is flip it. Knowing that mysterious enemies await their emergence, Hanna hesitates as if facing Pandora's box, but she turns on the machine out of eagerness for her life to begin. Soon enough, her father flees on a mysterious transcontinental errand, while armed goons pick up the girl.
Wright relishes the film's visual extremes and changing vantage points. The sinister agents bring Hanna from the frozen north to a mammoth underground complex. She escapes and climbs out of a hatch into a craggy North African desert that might as well be a Martian landscape. Encountering strangers for the first time, Hanna proves ruthlessly efficient and awkwardly innocent. Ronan finds the gentle humor in the character robotically repeating the details of her cover identity, or goggling at high-tech miracles like florescent lights.
Hanna and Erik hold state secrets long prized by shifty CIA agent Marissa Wiegler, whom Cate Blanchett plays in severe grey suits and makeup that maximizes the contrast between her red hair and pallid complexion. Between Blanchett's look, the film's more outré sets and the soundtrack's techno tunes by the Chemical Brothers, Hanna frequently seems on the verge of turning into an Eurythmics video.
Hanna's plot doesn't stand up to much scrutiny. Why can't Erik and Hanna just construct fake identities and stay out of the spotlight? Hanna might be a young supersoldier, but she still seems ill prepared for the modern world. The film works better when viewed through the kind fairy-tale logic that treats Marissa as a wicked stepmother trying to keep Hanna under control.
Wright gives the film weird, dreamy visuals worthy of director Nicolas Roeg (Walkabout, Don't Look Now), but his symbolism can be crazily obvious. Erik walks down a German street past eyeball graffiti and billboards for spectacles — we get it, he's under suspicion. Not only does Hanna prize an ancient volume of fairy tales, the final set pieces take place at an abandoned Brothers Grimm amusement park, complete with a life-size gingerbread house.
Ronan's charming performance keeps the film from surrendering to its Jungian flourishes. Particularly when Hanna befriends a vacationing English family, Ronan comes across like a whimsical android or benign alien marveling at a brave new world. Despite its flaws, Hanna leaves us eager to see the heroine in sequels for ever after.