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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1 Comment

Filed under Joe Wright, New Ones

One response to “Hanna, Fairy Tales, and Homeschooling

  1. brett

    great review. I was also put under the impression that the blond ” villain ” was either another experiment or perhaps the donor for the experiments due to the similarities in appearance and the way marissa treated him in the bar scene kissing him on the check like a mother as she acted like that when dealing with hanna too. not positive on that but i was looking for an in-depth intelligent review to see if others thought the same and though this review doesn’t address that particular relationship it was still fantastic and pointed out the helicopter parent analogy which i had not pick up on and i was unaware of the grimms fairytales twist too since i have never read them. great work.

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