Monthly Archives: April 2011

Hanna, Fairy Tales, and Homeschooling

Once in a while a film comes along that redefines your expectations, that does something new with a lot of old things, a work of art as inspired as it is flawed. Good or bad become almost empty judgments. Some messes can only be made by geniuses. Maybe Joe Wright got lucky, but let’s hope not. Hanna may not beat the competition, but it’s a rare movie that changes the rules of the game.

Consider what some critics have been saying:

Bland title, beguiling movie. Hanna is far from perfect but, courtesy of star Saoirse Ronan and director Joe Wright, it’s one of those imperfect pictures that manages to command and hold our attention straight from the opening frames. –Rick Groen

Of course the movie re­minded me of “Kick-Ass” (2010), the action fantasy about a deadly young girl. I like “Hanna” a good deal more, because in its quirky way, it has something to say, a certain wit and a command of the visual poetry of action. –Roger Ebert

Wright’s earlier credits, including two mannered period pieces, may not have suggested this was his cup of tea. But now that he has found a groove, maybe he can rescue American action movies from the wasteland of boring spectacles and keep the focus where it belongs—in speedy timing and giddy payoffs. –Eric Kohn

And those who were not so positive:

Hanna is contrived, pretentious and not worth seeing even for the perverse pleasure of watching first-rate talents make second-rate fools of themselves. Hanna is an incomprehensible pile of gibberish with great credentials. – Rex Reed

Kick-Ass is mentioned in a lot of the reviews, sometimes to elevate Hanna to comparison or to equate both films as the same overly-stylistic heaps of junk. Here’s my take. Even if we leave character and story aside, Kick-Ass comes up short in inventiveness of genre subversion. Of course, there is a 12 year-old girl kicking ass, and none of the heroes have super powers. The trailers scream “No Powers? No Problem” and then add one qualification: you have to be an expert in martial arts to be a masked vigilante. I felt like Lionsgate was selling me sparkling fruit juice instead of champagne. Their argument that somehow teenagers in suits could become superheroes (again, with martial arts training) is similar to claiming Batman is just an ordinary guy (with lots of money and Himalayan martial arts training).

In Hanna our hero is super-human. Saoirse Ronan’s lone wolf is the product of the same vague biogenetic mutations that created Captain America and Spiderman. While Hanna’s strength and agility supply the action scenes, there is a lot more going on genre-wise. It’s a revenge thriller, fairy tale, and extended Oedipal narrative rolled into a bewildering – and yes, sometimes pretentious – yet simple tale of adolescence. That’s a lot more than I can say for Kick-Ass, which starts out in teen comedy and then switches lanes into a blood-soaked opera of retribution without emotional or intellectual payoff.


She knows the facts and yet she doesn’t know the world. Wright juxtaposes Hanna’s disturbing capacity for murder with her naivety. Sophie (Jessica Barden) schools Hanna in normal teenager-hood and family interaction (Olivia Williams and Jason Flemyng are the very convincing parents). As critics have said at greater length and in better prose, this contrast deepens the heroine’s conflict in her own search for trust and identity.

You can read Hanna’s isolated upbringing as a parable for helicopter parents. Erik (Bana) is a protective and loving father who hates to part with his daughter, an inevitable stage of parenthood. He even stumbles over the word “sperm” when teaching Hanna about whales. All parents should shield their children from the dark, deceptive sexual world outside the cabin; the question is when do you let them go? Those are pretty profound questions for a film involving a German assassins in beach shorts.

The Ice Queen

The original fairy tales in the brother’s Grimm often featured an evil mother figure oppressing pitiable heroines. More often than not the stepmother was the villain (Snow White, Cinderella), partly because she could embody all the nasty aspects of abusive motherhood without being the natural mother. The father is, in contrast, a saint or a dead saint, but in both case powerless to stop the stepmother’s assault on the heroine’s freedom.

For all his lethal abilities (exhibited in one very long Joe Wright take) Erik is powerless against Marissa (Cate Blanchett), an amalgamation of CIA inquisitor, Narnian ice witch, and evil queen-stepmother tropes. Wright fetishizes the character’s menace well: tracking shots of the sharp, stylish high heels, closeups on the perfect white teeth and grey, cold, trench coats that sap any warm femininity out of Blanchett’s appearance.

Seth Lochhead and David Farr’s screenplay suggests not too subtly that Marissa’s lack of empathy is a result of motherlessness. When Hanna’s grandmother finds the CIA woman in her home she asks her why she never had kids. “I made certain choices,” Marissa replies (along those lines), screwing a silencer onto her handgun. The implication that Marissa is sterile or too career-oriented for family would piss off Judith Butler but it’s great for the cinemagoer who would not have expected an action film to complicate feminist principles further than cutting disposable bimbos in and out of the plot.

Blonde Oedipus – Spoiler Alert

Erik eventually tells Hanna that he was not her biological father, that she was artificially conceived in a laboratory supervised by Marissa. One of many loose ends is the questions of Hanna’s parenthood, though while I watched the final encounter between Ronan and Blanchett I wondered if a twist was coming. Was Marissa the mother? Was Hanna’s entire journey away from the cabin the Freudian narrative of the child pulling away from one parent and reconciling its hatred to the other?

In The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), Freud wrote:

It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. King Oedipus, who slew his father Laius and married his mother Jocasta, merely shows us the fulfilment of our childhood wishes.

His colleague Carl Jung proposed the Elektra complex for girls, the exact reverse. Hanna shoots Marissa with an arrow and tells her: “I just missed your heart”, an echo of the opening hunting scene wherein she takes down a deer. There’s a lack of emotion in Ronan’s face when she stares down at Marissa, who, oddly, smiles. The retribution seems to already have been replaced by Hanna’s sense of deep satisfaction; maybe the satisfaction that Hanna has severed ties to both parents (both dead).

Moments where the credibility is flimsy only make the Bildungsroman (stories of adolescent development) readings appear more credible. Why did Erik suddenly decide to allow Hanna to join the rest of the world? His only explanation is the one he gives at the moment of his death: “Kids grow up.”

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Talking to Liam Lacey

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. You can also find this interview on The Varsity website. If you like this, subscribe on the right!

Critics occupy an odd and often awkward position between the audience and the artist, playing both observer and judge to the latest cultural output. Asking the right questions – and adjusting your idea of objectivity from text to text – is a fine line to walk. The Globe and Mail’s Liam Lacey returns again and again to Goerthe’s criteria: “what is trying to do? Does it do it? Does it matter? The last question is obviously the most tricky.”

It’s refreshing to dissect the dissector, to ask questions to the person with the job of anticipating our questions. Lacey is candid and unpretentious, able to see the merits of Hobo With A Shotgun and the shortcomings of Abbas Koriastami’s arty Certified Copy. He pauses to stare at the table before readying his words and then begins anew, hand moving across the surface. The spiked sprout of white Beckettian hair above his forehead and the red-rimmed glasses complete the image of slightly hip thoughtfulness.

“We’re not academics, we’re not in the business of scholarship. There’s an evaluative aspect of our job. When it boils down to it, we say whether something is good or not.” Nevertheless, he looks up to thinkers he calls “heroic critics”. “When I came to U of T, Frye and McLuhan were still here. They were social philosophers who made the role of the critic more attractive. They were creative critics.”

Lacey took only one film course – Bart Testa was his TA – when he did his English BA. In 1979 Testa helped him land a job as a rock critic at the Globe, a position he held until 1993 when the late, great Jay Scott passed away. Rick Groen took over and Lacey helped pick up the slack. Now they divide the reviews between them, and Lacey readily admits “it’s an ongoing learning curve.”

Neither is it a job that needs an obvious set of skills or knowledge. “You could spend a lot of time learning Japanese cinema, or even Japanese cinema from the 50s, but that doesn’t have much to do with your day-to-day job. You have your 3-5 stories thrown at you week-to-week on a regular basis.” In the early 90s he was given the genre pictures, the leftovers other critics didn’t want to take. That type of art is a whole different animal from the (self-)important art film, and takes a different set of tools to pass judgment.

“I don’t know what my standards are sometimes,” laughs Lacey. An unsure critic is often the best kind of critic. “Standards shift from film to film. There’s no cookie cutter model or moral grid that I use. I’m reviewing Certified Copy, and it’s interesting but less substantial than Koriastami’s Iranian work. Hobo With a Shotgun is a well-done spoof of a genre film. Jason Eisner, the director, has a great eye for the subject, the editing, the humour.”

David Pike, The Varsity

If going against critical consensus has consequences, Lacey shrugs them off. “You can give a negative review of a film well-regarded by elite critics. But if I dismiss Copy, it’s not going to ruin my life. I’ll get called bad names. It’s easy to get away with being anti-highbrow.”

Lacey’s influences include the usual suspects: Andrew Sarris, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Pauline Kael, David Kehr, David Bordwell (“always very useful”), Jay Scott and music guru Robert Christga of the The Village Voice. He quotes his colleague Rick Groen: “It’s true everyone’s a critic, but a critic isn’t everyone.” However, the internet has arguably made a critic out of everyone with an IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes account.

“You used to have to read the local critic to know what was good. I think the gatekeeper role is over. You don’t have authority anymore just because you have the job. It’s more honest, in a way.” There’s an ambivalence in his voice, as if the future holds both good and bad.

“There used to be a hierarchy in journalism. Some newspapers would publish the consumer report, basically an unambiguous judgement. Other were entertaining in themselves, taking the art at a distance and try to look at it in terms of wider cultural forces.” Publishers are leaning to the report. “They want smaller pieces with more evaluative statements.”

I mention how the print version Globe is starting to like a website. “The big push is to work graphics and charts into the text, but this isn’t the same as actual critical discourse. The film enthusiast doesn’t lose out; the internet can take you to some very sophisticated criticism. You’re not trapped in IMDB forums. But we’re not, I think, moving in a high-end direction.”

As to the state of film-making itself, Lacey has a nuanced outlook. “There’s something interesting happening. Hollywood cut back from around 160 to 148 films a year. Emphasis is more on tentpoles and sequels and all of this would seem to counter the idea of making medium-sized dramas and art films. But Black Swan, True Grit, The King’s Speech – each made over $100 million. So audiences are looking for alternatives.” This may actually be because of changes in media distribution. “When there’s a glut of alternatives, people might be looking for something smarter. The internet could be producing a smarter, more discerning consumer.”

If North Americans are flocking to see dramas, why aren’t Canadians going to see Canadian films? “The problem is the thinking that box office is the same as profit. Passchendaele made four million but it had a twenty million dollar budget. That’s an abject failure by any objective evaluation, but people called ‘high performing’. I would like to see the Canadian industry operate like it did in the 90s, when we scored at international festivals with cheaper art films and didn’t go for pseudo-commercial projects like Score.”

When asked about his favourite period he says French historical films from the 40s and 50s are a continuing revelation. “Melville, Renoir – I keep going back to them. You see lost skills, lost methods of acting, of filming a scene.” He smiles, maybe coming to the node of what criticism means for him. “I think the hardest part is telling myself that one film is never exactly the same as the other. It’s a question of sharing that experience with the reader, to try and get different people to see different films.”

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