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For a time, there were often complaints about a lack of strong female heroes in films. Today, however, it seems like the complaint has been answered with a “careful-what-you-wish-for” twist. It is true that we see more and more female heroes in movies, whether its Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel, Terminator: Dark Fate’s three female leads, Daisy Ridley’s Rey in the Star Wars’ sequel trilogy, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, as well as Scarlett Johansson’s upcoming Black Widow film to name a few recent examples. It seems that strong female characters have finally made their way onto the blockbuster scene, but many moviegoers are worried that these films are putting too much of an emphasis on the main hero’s gender, and forgetting to give these lovely ladies any compelling character in the process.

Whether or not any of the current female heroes dominating cinema screens worldwide can be well-written characters in addition to breaking the mold is a topic which deserves its own separate article. My point is that a lack of strong female characters has often been cited as a problem with the film industry, but the fact is that there have been quite a few films that featured such characters. They simply weren’t noticed enough.

2011’s “Hanna” was hardly a failure, earning back twice its $30 million dollar budget and garnering a strong reception from critics and viewers alike, but it wasn’t successful enough to get that much attention. However, with Saoirse Ronan getting more buzz with some excellent performances in recent films as well as director Joe Wright’s name appearing at more than a few Oscars, more viewers like me have begun discovering this unique little film and noting it down on our “to-watch” list. So not too long before the writing of this review, I finally finished watching “Hanna”. Here’s what I have to say. Warning: complete spoilers for the film incoming.

“Style over substance” is always used as a criticism against films, but to me, it goes both ways. Sometimes good stories can be buried underneath too much style, but most of the time, style elevates, and in some cases saves the material. Such is the case with Hanna.

The movie tells the story of a 15-year-old girl named Hanna who has remarkable abilities, such as heightened senses, exceptional speed and agility, and so on. It’s not surprising that we eventually find out that Hanna is actually the product of a secret super-soldier project carried out by the CIA. Agent Erik Heller, who recruited Hanna’s mother at an abortion clinic, eventually goes rogue and helps Hanna and her mother escape the CIA. Hanna’s mother is killed, but Erik is able to take Hanna into the wilderness, where he helps her hone her exceptional talents thanks to her abnormal DNA, and turns into a deadly killer. Turns out he’s training her to eventually take out the CIA handler who killed Hanna’s mother and is responsible for the clean-up operation of the abandoned super-solider project, a woman named Marissa Wiegler. In a pretty unique twist, Erik hands Hanna a transmitter that will alert the CIA of their location when switched on, meaning that it’s our heroes who put themselves in danger, not the villains. Hanna, sick of hiding and longing to see the real world, switches the transmitter on. And the chase begins.

The story is something you’ve probably heard many times before. Dark CIA operation. Experiments on children. Super soldier program. A rogue agent. Government pursuit. A child entering the world after years of isolation. It’s a patchwork of ideas and concepts that we’ve seen in many films before. Perhaps its intentional, with the film’s constant references to fairy tales, which often find themselves re-treading the same old tropes. But intentional or not, the plot is not that interesting or compelling. The only chance for the writing to shine is in the film’s characters, but even then it’s not perfect.

Marissa Wiegler, the primary villain played by Cate Blanchett sporting a rather distracting old-timey American accent, is given just a hint of depth with her complete dedication to her job (going so far as to surgically prevent herself from having children) and her seemingly personal vendetta against Hanna and her father, but nothing about her is ever revealed or explained, causing her motives for hunting down the Heller family, to the point where she is willing to put her own job on the line, remains a mystery even as the credits roll. There is also the question of what exactly it is she wants with Hanna. Because it seems like she never sets out to kill her. Her orders for her henchmen are simply to capture her. Even when they come face to face, she claims she only wants to talk. And I really wish that Hanna did talk with her, because then we’d know what on Earth she wants. Sadly, she only ever remains “The Big Bad Wolf” of the story, the opposing force which our heroine must defeat. In a not-so subtle piece of symbolism we even see her standing in the mouth of a giant wolf statue.

The other secondary villains seem to be simply villains with cartoonish characteristics as opposed to real personality. One of them whistles and wields a metal cane. The others are just typical thugs. Meanwhile, Eric Bana, playing Erik Heller, is given enough screen-time and action scenes to establish his character as bad-ass killer with a good heart, but that’s as much character as you’ll get from him. Director Joe Wright describes him as “The Woodcutter”, the strong masculine character who comes in to save the day when needed.

All these side characters are simply archetypes there to support the story of our main character, on whom all the good writing in this film is focused upon. And that is obviously crucial to stopping this film from sinking into generic action thriller fare. Having the main action hero be a 15-year-old girl is already interesting enough, but a good chunk of the movie is devoted to slowly exploring her character through her interactions with the brave new world she had ushered herself into.


The movie is Hanna’s coming-of-age story, about her leaving the relatively safe and warm embrace of childhood (as safe and warm living in a remote Antarctic wilderness can be) under the protection and guidance of her father, and into the unfamiliar, cold and electronic modern world. When she is first exposed to this world, when a CIA strike team surround their wooden cabin in the wilds, it is an assault on her heightened senses. The mostly soundtrack-free beginning of the film is immediately drowned in frenetically paced electronic music, which is used frequently during Hanna’s forays into the modern world. In a later scene, when she is given a room in a small hotel by its kindly owner, she is once again assaulted by the sounds of the fans, television, electric kettle and the lights, leading her to rush out of her room in a disoriented haze. Not only does she have to adapt to his strange, new world, she is also constantly being hunted down by Marissa’s goons, always having to keep one eye over her shoulder. Maybe we normal kids don’t have to worry about being chased by beefy men or being overwhelmed by electronics (in fact kids are bit too well-acquainted with technology these days), but the world out there is definitely unfamiliar in a different way. Hanna is sheltered through isolation and the physical protection of her badass dad, while we are sheltered thanks to the hard work of our parents who go out there to face the world in order to bring back the money to feed us, clothe us and give us a place to stay. We don’t yet know what it means to be alone, to have only ourselves to count on. Our world may not be quite as dangerous as Hanna’s, but it’s still dangerous compared to the sheltered childhood many of us are lucky to have. 


But Hanna is definitely more well-equipped than many of us are at the age of 15. She can speak nearly every language, and has the aforementioned combat training enhanced by her super DNA.

In fact, you never feel like Hanna is in any danger because of how overpowered she can be. In a fantastic prison escape early on, we watch her easily take down five armed guards and a trained agent. But for some reason, we rarely see her engage in such bad-assery again. Indeed, Hanna seems to spend the entire movie running away from people whom she could very easily kill. It seems that Hanna, despite being programmed to feel no remorse or empathy when killing, actively avoids hurting others, simply preferring to run and evade danger instead of facing it. That’s because a large chunk in the middle of this film is dedicated to Hanna as she travels all over Europe to get to Berlin, where’s she is supposed to meet with her father. The film slows down considerably and turns into a more traditional indie coming-of-age film, complete with fireside dances, awkward dates, implicated homosexuality and road trips filled with revealing conversations. While it’s not the most original indie coming-of-age film, it still feels fresh enough to have such a change of pace and genre to feel unique. A road-tripping family whom Hanna encounters several times during her travels are supposed to provide her with a glimpse of what a normal life is like, but beyond that their appearances feel a bit awkward and forced, and even more forced is the friendship between Hanna the family’s only daughter. But there are moments of genuine joy and humanity in the moments Hanna spends with them, and the movies tries very hard to make you care about this family, but at the end of the day it’s hard not to feel like the family is simply a plot device to help Hanna learn how to be a normal human being. Supposedly, it’s from her time with the road-tripping family which spurs her to become more than just a killing machine and to hold herself back from just slaughtering her pursuers, to pursue a life that is free from bloodshed and violence. As far as excuses go for our heroine with perfect combat skills not just killing the bad guys in the first half hour, it’s a perfect one. It’s a shame the bad guys don’t have a similarly compelling reason not to just shoot our heroine the minute they see her. In the end, Erik, our Woodcutter, is the one who kills Marissa’s goons, and though he eventually is killed by Marissa, he dies confident that Hanna will be able to take her down, completing the long journey he has been guiding her through. When Hanna and Marissa come face to face, Hanna gives her a chance to back down and walk away, but eventually it all just boils down to a rather anticlimactic fight which ends with Marissa tripping and falling down a slide, and Hanna walking up to her and pulling the trigger, after which the movie abruptly ends. I guess Hanna killing Marissa is the ultimate end of her little coming-of-age journey. It’s Little Red Riding Hood facing down the “Big Bad Wolf” of her story, learning that, as much as she wants to leave killing behind, sometimes its impossible to reason with the bad guys and dirtying your hands it the only way to get on with it.

As far as coming-of-age stories go, the pieces are not original, but I suppose the way they’ve been stitched together does give the movie some semblance of uniqueness. But it’s the outstanding direction, cinematography, editing and especially the music, combined with Saoirse Ronan’s excellent performance, that truly elevate this film above the usual action thriller coming-of-age fare. I’m not familiar with director Joe Wright’s work, but this movie definitely has given me a taste of something truly special. Once you get past the first 20 minutes, which, while beautiful filmed, seemed to be edited together in an oddly frenetic and disorienting pace, the movie becomes an audio-visual feast for the eyes and ears. There is not a single scene which is blandly lit, not a single dull frame, and it is also patched together with incredibly fast-paced and energetic editing. In the prison escape scene alone, which could very well become one of those classic scenes revisited in film schools years later, you’ve got a unique location with the wind tunnels, flashing lights combined with lowered framerates giving the entire set-piece a disorienting and threatening mood, an incredibly unique electronic dance soundtrack whose every beat is edited to precisely match what’s happening on screen, not to mention how perfectly and precisely choreographed every single action Hanna takes during this sequence. That’s not to mention all the incredible one-shot sequences, which apparently are Joe Wright’s signatures (there’s a great one-shot Dunkirk sequence in his 2007 film Atonement which is on Youtube), like the 3-minute shot of Erik walking through a bus station, before entering a deserted subway station where he engages in yet another fight perfectly timed to the beat of the soundtrack. Or the minute long take showing the bad guys hunting Hanna in a container shipyard. And the soundtrack by the Chemical Brothers is pure excellence. You’d think that catchy techno-pop would be out of place in a tense thriller, but the compositions takes all the great cinematography and direction and skyrockets it into space. And its clear that the director and editor see the value of the score because it often feels like every single scene is edited around the music, to the point where image and sound are in perfect union and you can’t imagine one without the other. Every punch and kick, every glance and twitch, seems to be edited to the thumping beats of the music. It’s a perfect marriage of sight and sound that gives even How to Train Your Dragon a run for its money. All in all, there’s just so much artistry at work here that even without the few touches of greatness in the script this movie would still be above average.

All in all, even though the movie comes close to “style over substance”, which still would have given us a good movie, certain flourishes in the script leaves us with a film that has style and a touch of substance, which gives us a great movie.