Tales of Yore is a series of articles about fairy tale adaptations. Adaptations can be direct or loose, and these reviews attempt to consider the films in the context of the stories upon which they are based.
Last year at some point my friends and I were sitting around, looking for a movie to watch. We came across the trailer for Hanna (2011), which plays as a slightly intriguing action thriller. Here’s an introductory plot summary:
Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) has grown up in the woods of Finland with her father (Eric Bana), who has trained her to be the perfect assassin. When she is sent on a mission, she must traverse a world she doesn’t know or understand to find her target.
I wasn’t particularly interested, as most action movies bore me, but I consented mostly because of Saoirse Ronan’s presence. By the end of the movie I knew I’d seen something clever, well-made, and–true to its genres–thrilling. But it wasn’t until I recently caught Hanna again that I noticed not just the amazingly directed action sequences and incredible electronica soundtrack, but also the unique character interactions and fairy tale undertones (or overtones for the many of you that are more observant than I).
In hindsight, the good parts of Hanna make sense considering the director, Joe Wright. He’s made movies like Atonement (2007) and the fantastic 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. While those aren’t really predictors of a good action director, they do show his interest in character, which a lot of action thrillers forget.
But what really makes Hanna stands out as an action movie is the feminine undercurrent, which is partially because of the fairy tale influences, but also due to a well-written script. Because Hanna was raised in the woods by her father and has never met another human being, she is fairly detached from standard notions of femininity and masculinity. She’s trained by her father to be a hunter, but the development of her character comes from her interactions with the outside world, mainly with women. Hanna isn’t just a movie with a female lead, but one with a slew of realistic female and male characters as an integral aspect to the story.
After she flips a switch that reveals her location to start her journey, she’s captured, escapes in a great action setpiece, and meets a hippy Brit couple and their kids. The crux of this interaction is the contrast between the mother Rachel (Olivia Williams) and her daughter Sophie (Jessica Barden). Rachel has been described by director Wright as “a lost feminist,” referring to her disillusion at the lack of social change over the decades. Sophie, on the other hand, obsesses over celeb culture and is very much so a teenager. Hanna sees two near-opposites of a female spectrum she’s had no prior experience with, and learns about everything from Bohemianism to popculture fanatacism.
But Sophie and Rachel aren’t merely thrown into the narrative to go, “Hey! Look at how different Hanna is from everyone!” They’re fleshed out characters that illuminate Hanna’s growing understanding of the world. Sophie in particular stands out because instead of Wright and the screenwriters making her a cheap target, they balance her absurd celeb-culture obsession with intelligence, empathy, and surprising insight. She teaches Hanna friendship and bonding.
This new experience, female bonding, complicates Hanna’s mission to kill her target Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett). Remember the fairy tale bits I mentioned before? Well, in a way, Wiegler can be construed as the Big Bad Wolf, but more realistically she is the evil stepmother character type. While details on Hanna’s past are initially hazy, we know that Wiegler is somehow connected to her father and wants to kill both of them. Hanna is at first glance like the “daughter kept from the world” character you see in the likes of “Sleeping Beauty“ stories.
But considering the often problematic stories and characters that permeate many fairy tales (focus on beauty; stereotypical gender roles; occasional rape), Hanna unsurprisingly spins the fairy tale genre on its head. Hanna is definitely not a typical princess as she is proactive and uninterested in being saved by the prince. But lest she just become exactly like the princes of those old tales, the interactions with Sophie and Rachel that I mentioned before also make her feminine. Hanna strikes a really nice balance that allows her to be a unique and well-developed female character, one that both harkens back to those tales of yore and reflects modern sensibilities. Moreover, Wiegler is not just a shallow villain, but one we learn more about, and Hanna’s befriending Sophie complicates Wiegler’s role because an increased sense of empathy makes the mission less black and white.
Hanna’s ultimate journey, though, is one of liberation, which is very antithetical to most fairy tale heroines, who all tend to aim for the same star: marriage. While the movie sells itself as her revenge tale, she’s ultimately stuck in a battle between her father and Wiegler.
Both combatants have complex reasons for their fighting, and Hanna’s life is controlled by Wiegler’s mission and her father’s quest. From the moment she flips the switch to start her mission, she is on a quest to find herself. Sophie, Rachel, and other characters along the way help Hanna do both. We ultimately have a twist on fairy tales and revenge thrillers, as we see Hanna’s complex mission become a quest for freedom.
Hanna deserves a lot of credit for balancing some complex themes and blood-boiling action. While it’s perhaps slower than major action movies like The Expendables, I think that the direction and payoff of the action sequences is greater, which makes Hanna the perfect film for both people wanting a kinetic, fun movie and those craving great cinematography and food for thought. There’s a lot of territory I didn’t cover here, so If you haven’t had a chance to see Hanna yet, maybe now’s the time.
Next week I review Sundance hit The Sessions. In the meantime, if you have a suggestion, comment, question, massive complaint, or what-have-you, use the form below that Mindless Action Monday wizard Drew showed us all.