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Adapt or Die

18 Apr

2000irises: Adapt or Die — A Review of the film Hanna

I’m not normally a fan of the action film. Testosterone-drenched, glamorized violence does nothing for me. Generally, action movies are ridiculous at best, boring at worst. Yes, boring. I don’t care enough about pumping soundtracks and squealing tires to sit through a plotless parade of scantily clad women and sweaty men. Yawn. Action movies rarely show any inspiration or creativity, and the inevitable, endless regurgitation of sequels only waters down the already-bland content. Fast Five, for example.

Then, occasionally, an action movie comes along which surprises me. This year, it’s Hanna. If you haven’t seen Hanna yet, you really, really should. Hanna’s director, Joe Wright, is most widely known for his literary adaptations of Atonement and Pride and Prejudice. (He recently announced he’s tackling Anna Karenina next.) Hanna is nothing like his previous work, but it retains crucial elements of his auteur style, in particular, his focus on complex female characters and their social environments. In a recent interview with Morgan Denno, Wright said, “I think most action movies have a very dubious socio-political point of view. It’s all about the glorification of violence and women becoming objects. I wanted to make an action movie that had a moral and a socio-political conscious.” [sic]

Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) is unlike any film heroine in recent memory. She’s s teen girl who’s been raised in the arctic wilderness, trained by her father to be an assassin. Sure, she kicks ass, but that’s a tiny part of why she’s so compelling. She’s lived away from civilization for most of her life, and despite her fluency in several languages, she doesn’t understand people or society. When it comes to relationships, motivations, falsehoods, love, she’s totally at a loss. This vulnerability balances out her fearsome fighting skills. Hanna has the innocence and self-preservation instincts of an wild animal – a comparison Wright sets up in the first scene. Hanna must kill her nemesis before she is killed, but her real challenge is to learn how to exist and survive among other people.

It’s notable that Hanna is not the only woman in this film. Unlike almost any other action film, the leads in Hanna are primarily women, none of whom are hypersexualized. (For comparison, check out what Joe Wright has to say about Sucker Punch.) Cate Blanchett plays Marissa, the CIA agent out to destroy Hanna and her father.

Jessica Barden plays Sophie, the “typical” teen daughter of the vacationing family that Hanna temporarily latches onto. And Olivia Williams plays Rachel, Sophie’s affectionate mother who tries to show Hanna kindness and protection. In contrast, only Eric Bana as Hanna’s father, and a truly sinister Tom Hollander have significant male roles. (Oh Mr. Collins, No!)

Hanna features gorgeous fairy-tale locations, fantastic cinematography, solid, terse dialogue, and amazing acting. What especially intrigued me, however, was the thematic question about mother-daughter relationships. Mothers populate this film: Photographs of Hanna’s dead mother haunt her throughout the movie. Hanna’s grandmother also appears briefly, and challenges Marissa to consider her position as a mother. (Watch Blanchett’s mouth and throat twitch when she admits she has no children.) Rachel is a surrogate protective figure, and Marissa, of course, is the anti-mother. Significantly, Wright doesn’t moralize about or idealize these mothers (or non-mothers) one bit. Instead, he presents complex characters in impossible situations and lets us consider how these mother-daughter relationships are relevant.

One doesn’t ordinarily expect such subtlety or philosophic consideration from an action movie. In his Vanity Fair interview with John Lopez, Wright explained, “Paul Greengrass showed us with the Bourne films that it’s possible to make an action film with a political, social conscience. I liked that idea of making an action film that was the opposite of misogynistic, gun-loving bullshit. Something that could entertain, first and foremost, but also have a social conscience.” Well done, Mr. Wright. Hanna is beautiful, well-written and masterfully executed.

Oh yeah, it’s also fast-paced, loaded with cool weaponry and impressive fighting, and set to a kicking soundtrack by the Chemical Brothers. No car chases though. You’ll have to (gulp) see Fast Five for that.

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