I Was a Teenage Frankenstein
By Fernando F. Croce
Dir: Joe Wright, U.S./U.K./Germany, Focus Features
“A perfect soldier” is how a military bigwig approvingly describes a headless column of masculine muscle in Robert Minor’s notorious 1916 antiwar cartoon for The Masses. The same phrase appears late in Joe Wright’s Hanna, in the obligatory spell-it-out speech that explains the illicit genetics behind the eponymous heroine’s ability to cut bloody swaths through hordes of armed men. The difference here, of course, is that the killing machine is played by dainty, willowy Saoirse Ronan, whose uncanny appearance—a spectral paleness that seems to blur the boundaries separating her porcelain skin, blanched tresses, and ashen eyes—suggests a pubescent Tilda Swinton in makeup for a Village of the Damned remake. That might have been a nifty visual joke were the film able to register the absurdity and wild humor inherent in its sparrow-sized protagonist’s rampages. As it is, the tomboy-fu on display aims to goose the audience as much as Hit-Girl’s slice ‘n’ dice massacres in Kick-Ass while cloaking its questionable jollies with a veneer of art-house respectability. The resulting superficies often jangle and tingle, but the film’s vision of adolescence as fairy-tale espionage remains tastefully hollow, with its young heroine’s storms of violence increasingly becoming as calculated as any of Shirley Temple’s tap dances of pouting and sniffling.
Aged about 16, Ronan’s Hanna is introduced in the snow-covered Finnish woods, fur-swathed like a junior huntress. Time is divided between felling and gutting forest critters and engaging in Clouseau/Kato-style bouts of surprise combat with her father, Erik (Eric Bana), who reads her encyclopedic factoids aloud, repeats survivalist koans (“Adapt or die!”) and basically runs their arctic sanctuary like an unintentional parody of a home-schooling martinet. The Brothers Grimm and Robert Ludlum are promptly revealed as the twin pillars of Seth Lochhead and David Farr’s screenplay, the former bluntly acknowledged with candle-lit close-ups of the fanciful engravings of the girl’s bedtime stories and the latter dutifully checked off with glimpses of metallic corridors and stairways that herald some Bourne-esque intrigue to come. “Kids gotta grow up,” Dad sighs, even those hiding from the CIA, so when Hanna declares herself ready, he produces a satellite tracking device that will alert the authorities of their whereabouts. Enter Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), the homeland-security operator who, with her round crimson coif, clopping high heels, and abruptly grimacing lips, is like the Wicked Stepmother, Maleficent, and the Big Bad Wolf rolled into one. She and Erik have some unfinished business, and Hanna’s decision to take on the civilization she’s been kept away from gives them both a chance settle old, murky scores.
The film peaks early, with Hanna whisked off to a rendition bunker following the raiding of the family cabin. Wright fills the rectangular frame as cunningly as Brian De Palma: screens within screens fracture the image as views of the imprisoned girl are reflected on the pane of Marissa’s observation booth. Unfortunately, the expert build-up to the revelation of the heroine’s superhuman lethalness gives way to an underground chase that, composed with cartwheeling camera moves and cut to the trance thumps of the Chemical Brothers score, all too aptly demonstrates the filmmaker’s shallow, flitting eye. In Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, glossy mixtures of British period reticence and cinematic braggadocio, one feels Wright thinking with the camera, seeking ways to add sweep and immediacy to tea-cozy costume dramas. (Far more striking than Atonement’s famed, ostentatious Dunkirk tracking shot is its trembling tableau of James MacAvoy and Keira Knightley caught mid-coitus, her back against a library wall.) It was in The Soloist, Wright’s first American film, that the virtuoso started to swamp the storyteller; Hanna continues and heightens the slide into hyperventilating fussiness.
Summoned by Marissa to hunt down Hanna, a doughy, effete Teutonic bartender (Tom Hollander) gazes at the stage where a stripper is gyrating to music-box tinkling and leers in dissolute wonder: “She has both male and female genitalia!” Waist-deep in suggestive gender dynamics, the film’s portrait of coming-of-age frenzies is nevertheless too timid to excavate the more challenging elements of Brother Grimm themes. Hollander’s camp assassin swishes like a Diamonds Are Forever villain, while intimations of the protagonist’s hormonal turmoil are shortchanged. After reacting to the Spanish cutie who came close to smooching her by nearly snapping his neck, Hanna relaxes long enough to bring her lips to those of her friend Sophie (Jessica Barden, reprising her motor-mouthed tween role from Tamara Drewe) in a hesitant sleepover sequence composed of murmurs and close-ups of eyes. The contrast between the two girls (sheltered tabula-rasa Hanna and pop culture-drenched Sophie) reflects the one between Marissa and Sophie’s mother Rachel (Olivia Williams), a RV-driving New Ager who, with her merry laissez-faire and beatific disdain for makeup, embodies the film’s notion of ideal motherhood. And lack of motherhood is witchy Marissa’s most unforgivable crime, supposedly the reason for the neurotic void that she fills with such baroque quirks as compulsive gum-brushing sessions that leave her mouth a gory sneer. In a film that’s bound to stir talk of “feminism” and “empowerment,” it should be noted that a scene in which Marissa slays a granny (“I’ve made certain choices,” she says while fastening a silencer to her pistol) might rank as the most insidious denunciation of a career woman since the postwar 1940s.
In the avenging-sprite subgenre, Hanna outclasses the torturous meta-wackiness of Sucker Punch but falls way short of the grave beauty of the True Grit remake. For all his formal swagger, Wright misses the fantasy’s giddy-macabre soul—he’s here too cold to give the fairy-tale elements emotional heft, and too cautious to run them to their grotesque limits as in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart or Matthew Bright’s Freeway. Once the camera stops spinning and the techno bleeps hush, we’re left with a senses-tickling but vaporous action flick that opens up no inquiries, except maybe “How many genuinely trenchant fables would Catherine Breillat have shot with this budget?” It’s only fitting that the climax takes place in a vacant amusement park featuring a gingerbread house made out of dilapidated wood.