Movies may be a visual medium, but occasionally a voice sells one. Think of Heath Ledger’s rasping in The Dark Knight or Haley Joel Osment’s tremulous “I see dead people” — sounds that are probably as famous as any images in those films. Likewise, Saoirse Ronan uses her reed-thin treble to give a memorably otherworldly ambiance to the spy thriller Hanna. With her whisper of affected German accent, the young Irish actress somehow makes lines such as “Come and find me” sound as delicate as Dresden china and as pitiless as a Grimm fairy tale. It’s one of those trailer sound bites that haunts viewers, even those who never see the film.
Those who do see Hanna will find that the whole movie is, like a great trailer, a triumph of style over substance. Joe Wright, who directed Atonement, has again concocted a film that moves from one arresting scene to the next, with visual pyrotechnics, clever pacing and fine actors acting up a storm. It all serves a story that’s basically a Bourne retread with the addition of some “top-secret government experiment produces an unlikely super-assassin” boilerplate. If you’ve seen the trailer, you know most of the plot points, because there aren’t many.
Ronan plays Hanna, who has been raised to adolescence in complete, arctic isolation by her father (Eric Bana). He’s given her a rudimentary education from outdated encyclopedias, crackerjack fighting skills and a mission to kill a U.S. covert operative named Marissa Wiegler. This isn’t immediately explained, but once we meet Marissa, played by Cate Blanchett with Scully hair, a cold stare and a bizarre southern-U.S. accent, it’s clear she’s up to no good. Blanchett is clearly having fun here, and so is Tom Hollander as Isaacs, the towheaded German sociopath Wiegler hires to pursue Hanna across Morocco after the teen escapes from government confinement.
Everyone’s faking some accent or other here, and Isaacs and his friends seem a couple of dance moves away from guest starring on “Sprockets” (when they’re not stabbing and maiming everyone in sight). But the film gets serious when it focuses on the quasi-feral Hanna’s efforts to adjust to a world that’s loud and crass and, in some ways, more brutal than she could ever be.
During a quiet interlude, Hanna tags along with a family of British tourists and befriends the daughter (Jessica Barden), a “normal” teenager who’s as obsessed with reality shows and designer handbags as our heroine is with killing methods and survival. Which is worse? we’re invited to ponder. At least Hanna will never rack up frivolous purchases on her daddy’s credit card while mocking his political views.
Indeed, Hanna’s upbringing raises so many tantalizing questions, and Ronan, Bana and Blanchett make such a dynamic murderous triad, that it’s tempting to imagine Hanna as, say, the first episode in a BBC miniseries, a harder-edged “Alias.” As a movie, it’s less satisfying.
Hanna is full of show-offy filmmaking (Wright loves a long tracking shot) and baroque flourishes that suggest it could blossom into a Kill Bill of the spy genre. But don’t hold your breath, because the biggest surprise in store is that there aren’t any.