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‘Hanna’ and the rise of the new auteur

It’s very possible that the degree to which I like the movie “Hanna” — which is very much demonstrates that I am a sucker for style.

Hanna is played by the extraordinary American-born Irish actress Saoirse Ronan.
Focus Features
Hanna is played by the extraordinary American-born Irish actress Saoirse Ronan.

It’s very possible that the degree to which I like the movie “Hanna” — which is very much demonstrates that I am a sucker for style. There really isn’t terribly much to the story it’s a sort of teen gloss on the Bourne movies, in which a child has been raised in the woods to be an assassin and has no idea why. Once she leaves the woods, the remainder of the film is one long, brutal chase scene in which almost every single character comes to an ugly end, no matter how briefly they are introduced or how little screen time they have. And that’s it. That’s the entire film. One can respect the austerity of the plotting, which makes “Sucker Punk” look like Tolstoy. But there’s nothing more to it in terms of story. Even the big reveal at the end has been long telegraphed, if you’ve been paying any attention at all.

I hate to get all film studenty here, but I’m going to go ahead and mention the group of film critics, and eventually filmmakers, that art students always go on about: the “Cahiers du cinéma” crowd, who eventually founded the French New Wave. They had a great fondness for American genre films, and were among the first to demand a revisionist critical assessment of such previously ignored genres as westerns and crime films. They argued that that the studio system limited the sorts of films that could be created, but great filmmakers auteurs would sneakily make far more sophisticated films. And how would they do this? Through stylistic choices. Hitchcock, as an example, made very popular suspense films, but he was a supreme stylist, and so his tales of murderers and bodies and detectives were shot through with themes of voyeurism, sexual obsession, and, for some reason, tennis and brandy.

We’re not in a very adventurous time for studio filmmaking. A big-budget film has to provide certain ingredients, and it cannot earn more than a PG-13 rating, because Hollywood is a superstitious town and clings to totems and taboos with a fervor that would fascinate Margaret Mead. In this case, somebody obviously looked at the top-grossing films of the past two decades, realized almost all of them were PG-13, and decided this was a mandate.

But this seems have precipitated a rise of the stylist, in the manner of mid-20th century Hollywood filmmakers who are able to work around the studio’s limitations to produce something interesting, and make extensive use of stylistic techniques to introduce themes into the subtext of the film that the studios might balk at were they more overt. Christopher Nolan, who directed the recent Batman movies, as well as “Inception,” was one of the first of these. I suspect Duncan Jones, who directed the recent “Source Code,” may turn into another. “Hanna’s” director, Joe Wright, is certainly among them.

In a lot of ways, “Hanna” feels like a product of the French New Wave, especially in the jerky rhythms of its editing. Wright has a great love for the jump cut and the long tracking shot, and he also likes his characters to be great eccentrics, as goofy as the underworld contract killers in François Truffaut’s “Shoot the Piano Player,” but just as deadly, and considerably more brutal. There is, first of all, a remorseless CIA handler, played by Cate Blanchett in a collection of severe suits, a molasses-thick Georgia drawl, and a coiffure that seems positively bulletproof. She responds to stress by obsessively brushing her teeth, laying out a variety of picks and tongue scrapers that Wright films like a tray of torture instruments, and Blanchett’s brushing produces about as much blood as we see in the film.

Blanchett enlists a group of killers, headed by a slightly plump, whistling German in a track suit. He is played by Tom Hollander, an actor of no small comic ability whose best role may be as the dense petty government official from the BBC series “The Thick of It All.” He brings with him two skinheads, and they spend the film driving around in an entirely unassuming, and unthreatening, battered white car, one of those boxy things that looks like it might come in a Playmobile set. When they have some down time, they sometimes launch into impromptu dance numbers. But they rarely have down time, as their primary function is to hunt down the titular Hanna and kill anybody she has contact with, which they do without hesitation and treat as being something of a lark.

Hanna is played by Saoirse Ronan, an American-born Irish actress who was raised in Country Carlow, and she’s an extraordinary actress. The film presents her as somebody who has been relentlessly trained in isolation by her father (Eric Bana, who spends the whole film looking like he’s on the edge of an especially violent nervous breakdown). She has all of the skills of an assassin, but none of the experience, and her isolation means that everyday things like television and overhead fans are bewildering and threatening to her. She tags along with an exceptional goofy British family in Morocco, and forms a halting, awkward friendship with the family’s daughter, an amiable motormouth played by Jessica Barden. At one point, Hanna warns the girl that she can’t tell her anything, because it might endanger her; the next moment, Hanna tells her precisely the most dangerous thing she knows, oblivious to the fact that this is the sort of thing she should keep to herself.

It all comes to a messy conclusion in the most clichéd of movie locations, an abandoned amusement park. But Wright chooses an amusement park based on the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, and so the whole of it consists of giant wolfs’ heads whose mouths open to tunnels, and rooms filled with enormous, upside-down mushrooms, and gingerbread houses where killers hide; all of these places are run down and broken. Much has been made of this reflecting an essential fairy-tale quality to the film, but I don’t read it that way. It’s a stylistic gesture that I think reflects the real theme of the film: that of a ruined childhood.

It’s surprising how much of a point a good director can make with a scenery choice.