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16-year-old Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) has spent her entire life in the wiles of Finland, raised by her ex-CIA operative father Erik Heller (Eric Bana). Here Hanna is trained in all means of survival, martial arts, and general combat. Erik has crafted her into a perfect machine, and now he is forced to let her loose on her life’s mission – murdering CIA officer Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett). Erik presents Hanna with a transmitter that will lead Marissa to their location, and leaves her to her fate, with plans to meet up in Germany after the dirty deed is done.

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Contrary to popular belief, I’m actually pretty easy to please. I can thoroughly enjoy movies as both high and lowbrow art. But my favourite movies are often the ones that sit somewhere between pure entertainment spectacle, and thoughtful, cultural endeavors. I enjoy reading beneath the surface, and recognizing themes just as much as I enjoy being awed by colourful photography, and the rollicking action scenes. Joe Wright’s Hanna appeals to both sides of my fandom, and is, as of this writing, one of, if not my favourite movie of 2011. Hanna is not a literal motion picture. Like Inglourious Basterds, The Phantom of the Paradise, Streets of Fire, or even Star Wars it’s meant to be read mostly through references and themes, not logic. And like those films, Hanna utilizes common and often mythical literary tropes to tell a familiar story. More specifically it’s a modern retelling of classic fairy tale motifs. Something similar was done with similar flare by Wayne Kramer when he made the sadly under seen and undervalued Running Scared. Hanna is also one of the more appealing ‘fish out of water’ stories in some time. Wright and his screenwriters play through the expectations, such as the first date, first kiss, first best friend, with hilarious anti-grace. Other stuff, like Hanna’s first experiences with technology, is appropriately frightening. Wright and screenwriters David Farr and Seth Lochhead are clever to acknowledge clichés without spending too much time on them. Very few of us are unclear on where this particular story is going, but most of us will be surprised with the execution.

Sadly the film’s greatest shortcoming is its strict adherence to its subtext. Non-literal stories don’t need to avoid making sense to still be successful on the fantasy level. In fact, a simple, and concrete base story is usually the best way to work out such a film. Hanna’s basic plot is simple – Hanna must move from point A to point B, and kill the Wicked Witch – but it’s cluttered with subplots, not to mention the fact that father Erik’s whole plan is ill-defined at best. These subplots, most of which revolve around Erik and Marissa’s past, lead to some fabulous sequences, but lead to logic holes that threaten to undermine our suspension of disbelief. The more enduring value is in the unexpected turns, which help propel this familiar tale into unique areas. Among the most unique elements are the supporting characters that help and hinder Hanna along her journey. Two of these characters steal most of the show – Marissa the wicked witch, and Sophie, the talkative pixie. Marissa is presented as Hanna’s opposite, and her hyper-modern lifestyle is often juxtaposed directly with Hanna’s forest wasteland. Marissa is a slave to fashion, she’s obsessed with oral hygiene, her hair is kempt and short, and she surrounds herself with cold steel and concrete. She’s also loud, authoritative, and has a singsong southern accent. Hanna’s tempered manner is also juxtaposed in a more wistful manner through her instant friendship with Sophie, a young British girl on holiday with her neo-hippy family. Sophie is every inch the modern girl, from her clothing, to her speech patterns, and her bizarre, Twitter-speak-like inability to internalize any of her thoughts (‘I'd rather like to be a lesbian, but not one of those fat ones, one of those supermodel-looking ones, but I think I'd only hold hands with my girlfriend, and I'd probably marry a man’). It’s a testament to Jessica Barden’s performance and timing that the character is charming, rather than obnoxious.

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All themes and subtexts aside, I’m pretty sure that Hanna exists less because  Wright felt an overwhelming need to tell this particular story, and more because Wright wanted to prove he could make more than period set weepies, and placating bumsploitation dreck (guess my opinion on The Soloist). This is a ‘show-off movie’, similar to Blade II, Dressed to Kill,or any number of the Italian horror movies I like to champion so often, and is most easily judged on its form over its content, which is really the secondary element. I find it especially telling that Danny Boyle and Alfonso Cuarón were previously attached to the film, because I see very much of 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire and Children of Men in his direction. Of course, this could just be an effect of all three filmmakers borrowing from similar sources. Besides basing many of his action beats on more recent minted prodigies, Paul Greengrass included, Wright borrows from many European sources, including a little Ingmar Bergman, a dash of French New Wave pioneers François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, and probably most distinctly, Italian directors like Bernardo Bertolucci and Michelangelo Antonioni. The Italian influence is quite evident during the final act, which  sees Wright letting go of all previous veneers of normalcy, and diving into almost joyful, Fellini-inspired madness, where the natural vs. modern themes are all but abandoned in favour of fantastical fairy tale houses, broken carnival rides, and pieces of plastic dinosaurs.

Of all the awards I’d like to see Hanna nominated for, there is one that I can’t imagine it not deserving to win come Oscar time – editing. This film is nothing if not an experiment in editing techniques, and how far they can be pushed without pressing the audience into an overwhelmed and frustrated state. The intensity and speed of the editing changes drastically, ensuring Wright and his editor Paul Tothill exhibit skill in both frantic and subtle. Hanna’s early escape from Marissa’s forces, for example, is deliriously cut together like a rock video, creating the illusion of movement through a binary strobe of images. Wright and Tothill echo this later when Hanna is chased by evil miniboss Isaacs (Tom Hollander), and his oi boys through a shipping yard. These scenes are juxtaposed with more traditional, softly cut scenes, scenes featuring hidden edits, and even a few subliminal cuts. Of course, the most impressive piece of business in the whole film is a flawlessly executed single take that follows Bana as he leaves a bus, walks through the station, realize he’s being followed, leads his enemies into the subway, and does battle with multiple opponents. It’s not quite up to the new standards set by Cuarón when he made Children of Men, but it’s more complex than longer shots seen in recent films like Tom-Yum-Goong and Oldboy. It could probably make Orson Wells smile.

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The action is well executed, and delightfully old school in terms of physical ability. Wright proves that a handheld look can work for hand-to-hand combat scenes, assuming the geography of a fight is appropriately established, and the characters remain enough in frame to discern their movements. He also avoids excessive and arbitrary cutting when fists start to fly, and utilizes very little slow motion (one fight is almost entirely shot in slo-mo, but this is to represent a sense of melancholy), yet still manages to create a sense of both motion and chaos. Perhaps Christopher ‘No One Can Tell What’s Happening When Batman Fights’ Nolan should consider hiring him for the second unit on Dark Knight Rises. The brutal realism is occasionally hindered, however, by the PG-13 rating, which is pushed quite far, but appears to have been achieved through a selection of lumpy cut-aways. Wright points out a deleted gunshot wound, and some reduced CG blood on his commentary, and some cut shots of a certain character that has been tortured to death. I’m torn on this particular issue. An R-rated film would probably be more effective, but I recognize that idealistically the film should appeal to younger girls, though I doubt many went to see it in theaters.

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Video


Hanna is a visual feast above everything else, and as such my expectations for this Blu-ray release were pretty high. For the most part I’m satisfied, but there is more inconsistency between scenes than I had anticipated. Research tells me that the film was shot both digitally and in 35mm, which might be the basis for this minor inconsistency, though the sheer quantity of lighting styles could also have an effect on the situation. For the most part, though, this 1080p transfer is beautiful, vibrant, and swimming with detail. The roughest stuff is mostly handheld, and largely shot around dusk or well lit night. These scenes are obviously supposed to be gritty, and the grain and lack of sharp details aren’t really an issue, but I don’t recall the blacks being so noisy in theaters. Dusk light scenes also feature some very browned (or occasionally greened) blacks. The colour schemes change throughout the film, though a basic theme of green, blue and orange permeate the entire production. Villains are sometimes represented by neon reds, and cold greens, and tend to dress in whites and blues (except Marissa, who is consistently marked by orange and green). The good guys, specifically the family unit, are often represented by an orange/gold glow. These representations seem to have less to do with the characters than Hanna’s feelings during the scenes they inhabit, however. Among the palette themes are set pieces painted with a similar shade of blue/green, which is pale enough that it doesn’t pop, but which creates effective contrast. Of all the major colour cues, though, I find the brief scenes shot in the misty forest around the fairytale park the most majestic. The greens here are so lush you can practically touch them. Detail levels are impressive, and even during the slightly washed out dark sequences important information is not lost. There is a problem with over-sharpening artefacts over some of the wider shots, but haloes are minimal overall.

I did note that the deleted/extended scenes tended to feature richer black levels, and more overall fine grain. This leads me to believe that there was either a mistake in this transfer, or that some kind of digital filter was placed over the film, and hadn’t been applied to these scenes.

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Audio


The image quality is up for argument, but the sound quality is not – this DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is just about perfect. The basic theme of this contradictory mix, which is both stark and soft, and busy and aggressive, is the sounds that define the miracles and fears of the modern world. Most scenes are presented in an aurally subjective manner, which sticks the audience into Hanna’s sound experience without being literal about it. The early parts of the film exact the bitter silence of bitter cold. There’s an underlying hiss of wind, or crackle of fire, but the overlying theme is silence. The void of noise will then be sharply cracked with a punchy sound effect, ensuring that both gunshots and crackling underbrush have a similar shocking effect. It’s important to note (though hard to miss) that the forest settings have no music, and that the Chemical Brothers hard and heavy techno soundtrack doesn’t really burst onto the track until armed forces first appear to take Hanna. More on the music in a sec. Hanna’s fascination and fear concerning modern society is most implicitly aurally explored when she’s left alone in her Moroccan hotel room. Here every channel is alight with the whoosh of the ceiling fan, the buzz of the fluorescent light, the ringing of the phone, the laugh of the television and the scream of the electric kettle.

Music plays part throughout the film as soon as Hanna leaves her solidarity. This is most obviously explored in the Chemical Brothers’ electronic score, but is also expressed during Hanna’s experiences with adopted families. The RV park has a buzz of reggae flutter through the backgrounds, Josie’s family sings and dances together, there is an extended sequence featuring a group of Spanish gypsies singing, Knepfler introduces himself via ‘Hall of the Mountain King’, and Issacs’ presence is often represented with the whistling of a menacing tune. Some viewers have found the Chemical Brothers’ score abrasive and overpowering. I can certainly see that point of view, it is quite loud, but don’t agree at all. Hanna is such a modern theatrical experience I don’t think the belligerence is uncalled for, or out of place. At the very least we can agree that the crashing drums give the LFE channel something expressive to do.

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Extras


The extras begin with director Joe Wright’s feature length solo commentary track. Wright sets off strong by describing his inspirations, whilst explaining his visual and thematic inspirations. The tone flutters a bit, and the technical jargon can bore, but his discussion of subtext, including parenting themes, fairytale tropes, character archetypes, and even some less than obvious social issues is fascinating. He even points out a gag at the expense of Americans, and our good teeth. Wright is appropriately self effacing as well, both calling himself out for cheap shots, and pointing out the basic weaknesses of the script (interestingly enough he doesn’t ever, to my memory, refer to screenwriters David Farr or Seth Lochhead, and creates the impression that Hanna is largely his film alone). His pace is consistently speedy, to the point that his words can begin to melt together at some points, and after about an hour there is a bit of repetition, but overall this is good listening.

Next up is an alternate ending (1:20, HD). This is less of an ‘alternate ending’ than a brief coda that doesn’t actually change anything about the previous ending. This is followed by a collection of deleted scenes (3:50, HD). These mostly fill in minor gaps in the story, and though often amusing was rightfully excised in favour of more efficient storytelling. ‘Adapt or Die’ (13:10, HD) is a behind the scenes featurette concerned with the action choreography, and Saoirse Ronan’s training. It features on-set footage, training footage, and interviews with Joe Wright, stars Saoirse Ronan and Eric Bana, and stunt coordinator Jeff Imada. ‘Central Intelligence Allegory’ (9:00, HD) explores the fairytale motifs, and their clash with the traditional CIA motifs. It includes storyboards, discussion of the science fiction aspects of the film (which are largely ignored by the film), discussion pertaining to the specific archetypes, and interviews with Wright, writer Seth Lochhead, producer Leslie Holleran, actors Ronan, Bana, Cate Blanchett, and Tom Hollander. ‘Chemical Reaction’ (6:10, HD) features discussion concerning the Chemical Brothers’ soundtrack, including interviews with Wright, Holleran, and a single Chemical Brother, Tom Rowlands, who speaks over the phone as to not reveal his visage. Here we learn about the basic process, which involved composing some of the music before filming. The disc is completed with ‘Anatomy of a Scene: The Escape From Camp G’ (3:10, HD), which follows the production of the hyper-modern escape sequence, ‘The Wide World of Hanna’ (2:10, HD), an exploration of the production’s continent skipping locations, a promo trailer (1:30, HD), and BDLive trailers.

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Overall


Hanna wasn’t quite as magical the second time around, but it still deserves a wider audience, and I hope it finds it on Blu-ray and DVD. From a technical standpoint director Joe Wright and his crew achieve near perfection, and the actors’ performances are solid the whole way ‘round. The story works conceptually, but is lacking a proper polish, and features some inconsistencies and holes that threaten the audience’s sense of suspended disbelief. This 1080p transfer is a bit inconsistent, but for the most part I’m assuming this was the intended look, and the DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack is among the best I’ve heard this year, thanks in no small part to the Chemical Brothers’ throbbing soundtrack. The extras are a bit brief, but cover most of the necessary bases, and include a solid director’s commentary.

* Note: The below images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.

Here are a few more caps for the road:
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