Somewhere in the snowy wilds of Finland, young teenager Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) stalks and slays a reindeer, but is ambushed by a relentless opponent. The attacker is Hanna’s own father, Eric Heller (Eric Bana), an ex-CIA agent who has spent a lifetime schooling her in superhumanly lethal killing skills, multiple languages and esoteric facts about the outside world. At long last Hanna is ready for the mission she was born for: to assassinate ruthless intelligence operative Marissa Viegler (Cate Blanchett), the woman who murdered her mother. Having arranged to rendezvous with her father at a secret location, Hanna allows herself to be taken into captivity, whereupon she swiftly executes her interrogator, Marissa. Escaping the maximum security prison, Hanna finds herself in Morocco where she befriends vapid teenager Sophie (Jessica Barden) and her kid brother Miles (Aldo Maland), and hitches along for a road trip with their easygoing hippie parents Rachel (Olivia Williams) and Sebastian (Jason Flemyng). Little realising the woman she killed was fake and the real Marissa has gathered a crack squad of killers hot on Hanna’s trail.
Hanna is that rarity: an action thriller skewed towards the sensibilities of young girls. The “surreal action thriller as character study” has a proud tradition throughout European cinema, but mainstream audiences seem uncomfortable with such poetic artifice and in some quarters responded with open hostility. Which is a shame because between them Atonement (2007) director Joe Wright and star Saoirse Ronan (who personally brought Wright on board) have crafted easily the most intriguing and ambitious action movie since the thematically similar Leon (1995), to which this is often compared. Just as Luc Besson proffered a fresh spin on his favourite theme of the stranger in a strange land, so too does Hanna offer a somewhat askew vision of the world as seen through the eyes of a disturbed little girl. Wright excels at getting inside Hanna’s head and the film’s success arguably stems more from the power of his ideologically loaded imagery than the potency of its plot.
As scripted by first-time writer Seth Lochhead and playwright David Farr (a veteran of BBC dramas Spooks and Outcasts), the film has a fairytale quality dealing as it does with a wicked witch out to destroy the child heroine and a parent passing on a talisman (in this case martial arts skills) to keep her safe from harm. Underlining the tone is the sly dialogue (“Let’s go to grandma’s house!” “Run little piggy!”) and a Jungian subversion of fairytale motifs from the big bad wolf (Tom Hollander - hilariously hammy as a Teutonic freak assassin) to the helpful magician and a suspenseful climax set inside a real gingerbread house amidst an old amusement park, enhanced by Wright’s artfully composed visuals (including superb, borderline avant-garde editing by Paul Tothill) and the ethereal, off-kilter characters. Saoirse Ronan turns in a commanding performance. Never before have those willowy blonde looks and piercing blue eyes been used so hauntingly. Equally, supporting players Eric Bana and Cate Blanchett (exuding soft-spoken menace - check out the neat scene where Marissa uses different interrogation methods on each family member) lend the unlikely scenario added dramatic weight.
While some momentum is lost during Hanna’s misadventures in Morocco, this segment remains especially important to the film as a whole given Wright highlights what he believes are his heroine’s greatest assets: a non-judgmental, inquiring mind. Equally the mid-section signposts the film’s most overlooked asset: its sly sense of humour, notably the satirical send-up of the oh-so-liberal hippie family and Hanna’s polite bewilderment at everything they do. The film parodies the rite of passage of a typical teenage girl, climaxing as Hanna comes to question the one person she trusts the most: her father. The action sequences offer visceral excitement within the confines of a PG-13 rating and include a superbly executed chase across the stacked containers of a shipping yard, while the adrenalin-pumping score by The Chemical Brothers is another laudable asset.