I had a similar reaction to this movie as I had to the other Joe Wright movie I’ve seen, Atonement (2007). The production design was great, the cast was great, the set-up was great (and the trailer did a great job of selling all these), but the actual story, characters, and flow of the film left me dissatisfied. I wasn’t sure exactly why, so I’ve been thinking about it. However, when you go looking for reasons why you didn’t care for a movie, it’s easy enough to find flaws that you would look over in movies that swept you up. Maybe I’m just out of synch with Wright’s sensibility.
As I say, I thought the set-up was good, as we learn that an ex-intelligence agent (Eric Bana) has taken his young daughter (the eerie-looking Saoirse Ronan) to a remote forest and trained her to be a killing machine. Her first action set-piece (after initial sparring with dad) is very effective, although there were elements of it I had problems with. But it’s when she makes contact with a family of kooky Brits on vacation that my doubts about how the fight scenes were constructed began to seep out into how the whole thing was constructed.
I think the central problem is the character of Hanna herself. In that first major action set-piece we see an unstoppable ninja in action. It’s very exciting. However, in her next major action setpiece, not only is she stoppable, but she actually runs away. This would be something if her opponents were made out to be superior fighters, but they’re not. Suddenly her character is vastly diminished, and she spends the rest of the movie running away. She regains her mojo in the very final scene, but by then it’s too late.
Another major problem I had with the movie, which I did mumble about to my friend Luke as we ate sushi afterwards, was the kooky family. (Who I wanted to love, because I love Olivia Williams, who played the kooky mom.) To me the whole episode with them ended up being meaningless. They are tossed aside and never heard of again, and Hanna never thinks of them again. Well, she’s a killing machine with no feelings, right? Except that we see her reacting emotionally to other things in the final act, and it seemed that the whole point of the kooky family was to give Hanna a taste of real humanity. On the other hand, the kooky daughter does provide a friendship bracelet that plays in important part later, so maybe there’s more going on here than I noticed the first time through.
There’s an attempt to cast the story as a fairy tale, with the wonderfully-ominous Cate Blanchett as the evil witch, for example. But the fairy tale aspects seemed a bad match to some of the thriller plot elements, so that (as Luke pointed out) Blanchett’s hatred of children (which you’d expect in a fairy tale witch) is rationalized as the regrets of a woman who chose profession over family. This feels retrograde and too obvious. Why rationalize it at all? She’s a witch! Then there are scenes like the one where Hanna escapes from an underground holding facility. This is shot and cut very poetically to suggest a fairy tale labyrinth in which Hanna has become lost. Problem is, where are the bread crumbs? Where’s Ariadne’s string? We do not see how Hanna finds her way out; it’s just a given. It feels like a cheat. I needed to see more of her cleverness, more of her super abilities.
Which is the problem I had with the fight scenes, too. Except for the final confrontation, which is well done, most of the fight scenes fail to develop Hanna (or her opponents) as a character. They’re just the usual modern blur of confusing action. No sense of strategy, no sense of decisions, craft, or technique. I would contrast this with the fight scenes in a similar Luc Besson film such as La Femme Nikita (1990) or those I saw just the other day in Gamer (2009), where the flow of action from character is clear.
Some are calling this an art house action film, and maybe I just didn’t get in tune with its arty rhythms. I’ll try it again on DVD at some point. I’ve focused on my complaints, but there was actually much I liked, including Hanna’s backstory. Some of the fish-out-of-water humor was very good too. The cast is great. The opening and finale are both strong. Maybe I’m just looking for trouble. Or maybe a better movie could be made from these elements.