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Her So-Called Life


dir. Joe Wright
111 minutes

Every teenage girl is an assassin, wielding words like weapons, carving out their spaces in the world by defining what, exactly, they are not: their parents, their siblings, their peers, that boring kid in their math class. Joe Wright's surprisingly fun Euro-puff Hanna makes that idea thrillingly literal, with the titular teenage assassin (Saoirse Ronan) as a wolf girl, raised in the snowy Finnish wilderness by her wilderness dad Erik Heller (Eric Bana, still stupid-hot on a movie screen despite a documentary about his love of cars that had Jay Leno and Dr. Phil as talking heads). One day, Hanna's father tells her about the world – it's out there, beyond their safe little cabin in the woods, and when she's ready, she can flip a switch and come face to face with the big bad wolf, Cate Blanchett's CIA op Marissa, all rubberized femininity in perfect suits, low heels, and a mutating, vaguely southern accent.

Out in the world, Hanna may not know who she is, but her instincts and training kick in so that even though she's a feral albino hothouse flower, with ratty hair, bleached eyebrows, and eyes as blue as a summer sky, she can take down a soldier with the greatest of ease, snapping necks and firing shots like an angel of death. There's an air of fairy tale placed over the story – once Hanna is out in the world, she has to make her way to Germany to meet up with her father at Grimm's house, but it doesn't feel so meaningful. Every action set piece has a striking amount of quiet, taking place in cool steel halls in grey and angles. The Chemical Brothers' block rocking beats gurgle over the soundtrack anytime something slightly thrilling is about to take place, but the film really starts working once Hanna runs into an actual teenage girl.

British Sophie (Jessica Barden) is a teenage girl in the best, funniest ways: rolling her eyes at her parents, desperate for some company from a girl her own age, she is an innocent playing at being the blase, world-weary sophisticate that she is in her head, and she lunges for Hanna's friendship when they meet, suddenly, in Morocco. Sophie is a power, a force of nature, and she forces Hanna out into the world, sitting for dinners with her embarrassing family (including Olivia Williams as a hilarious hippie-cum-academic) and taking her along on double dates with boys.

The sleek cool of the CIA scenes gives way to sundappled arias of dreamy girlishness, with beautiful shots of Hanna basking in the sun, or Hanna and Sophie curled up in a camping tent making the late night sleepover confessions of true friendship, truly innocent at heart. Sophie is the teenage assassin that Hanna could be, and she's a reflection of what Hanna could be if she had a normal life. That dynamic gives the movie some juice that Cate Blanchett can't match, which is why Barden (who specializes in teenagers, like her divine fangirl Jodi from the terrific Tamara Drewe) basically walks off with the movie, and Hanna feels the need to protect her from the world and the evil Eurobaddies on her trail in their best polo whites, looking like extras from Michael Haneke's Funny Games.

But just as soon as Hanna has some momentum, it stops short. Hanna has gone off on a chase and ended up wandering through Berlin, looking for a gingerbread house in an abandoned theme park. And it's all very beautiful – as in the overheated piece of Oscar bait Atonement, Wright has a fine eye for composition and striking images, but he can't always get his visual acuity to match up to the story – and Ronan is one of those actresses who has enough soul in her eyes so that you care about her, but it's the exact point that the script gets convoluted and confusing, with no real goal in sight. The fairy tale themes overpower the actual plot, and Hanna is soon a teenage assassin adrift, stuck in a fog-smothered mossy green forest.

Hanna may be relatively calm and cool, Euro-sleek and a borderline campy joy in its way of getting Hanna to Grimm's house, but once we're there, we need a fair payoff. There's a lot you can do with a teenage assassin, and Hanna had such a high entertainment factor - a genuinely good time at the movies – that it was easy to forgive it its ambitions. Joe Wright should probably stop making Oscar bait period pieces with Keira Knightley, because he has a knack for trashy spy travelogues. Start with a Hanna sequel, where she teams up with Sophie to fight crime and also kiss cute boys, as bff teen girl assassins on a tear.

Elisabeth Donnelly is the senior contributor to This Recording. She last wrote in these pages about anxiety. She tumbls here and twitters here.

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Reader Comments (2)

Again: What about Fritz Lang, and M, and leitmotifs, and surveillance and Peter Lorre?

April 16, 2011 | Unregistered Commentersagehoe

I enjoyed Hannah more than expected. It was like a fun long-form Chemical Brothers video with a nice psychedelic premise: Hannah has learned about the world but she is experiencing it all in one crazy rush. She realizes she likes the idea of a friend, the feelings and sensations of a friend. I may go see it a second time because it was fun to watch. It was an unguilty pleasure watching Hannah enjoy the sensation of riding on a vespa with a boy, through the night air.

April 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBilly

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