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Teenage Assassin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Filmmaker Joe Wright (The Soloist, Atonement, Pride & Prejudice) would seem like an unlikely choice to direct an action film, let alone an action film centered on a teen assassin, but that’s exactly what he chose as his follow-up project to The Soloist.

In screenplay form, Hanna received a coveted spot on the yearly Black List (a producer/agent list of unproduced screenplays) before Saoirse Ronan, the recipient of a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for Wright’s Atonement, became attached to star in Hanna. Based on their previous collaboration, Wright’s desire to work in a different genre, and Wright’s respect for Seth Lochhead and David Farr’s script, Wright agreed to direct Hanna, a wise, smart choice if there ever was one.

Hanna opens in a winter wonderland (a.k.a. Finland) as the title character, Hanna (Saoirse Ronan), stalks deer with a bow-and-arrow. She brings down a buck, killing it quickly with a gunshot after declaring she’s missed its heart. Hanna, however, doesn’t hear her father, Erik Heller (Eric Bana), as he sneaks up on her, providing a lesson in constant vigilance and situational awareness. Heller, an ardent survivalist former CIA agent, has trained her in hand-to-hand-combat, stick fighting, archery, and marksmanship, all in preparation for Hanna’s eventual reentry into the world beyond their forest home.

Hanna’s delayed reentry into the world, however, comes with real, physical risks. Heller expects his former CIA handler, Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), to send a black ops team to eliminate them, but rather than wait passively, Heller sets an elaborate plan in motion. Hanna will activate a GPS unit (with requisite giant red button) and allow Marisa’s team to capture her. Heller leaves before Marisa’s team arrives, instructing Hanna to find her way to Berlin when, as hoped, she eliminates Marisa.

Failing to kill Marisa, Hanna easily subdues several soldiers before escaping into the desert. Wright, keeping the audience tightly focused on and empathizing with Hanna, doesn’t immediately give away Hanna’s location via superimposed titles or road signs.

In a long, sinuous take (a Wright stylistic signature and the first of two such takes), Hanna wanders through a busy market and village. There she meets a British family on vacation, becoming fast friends with Sophie (Jessica Barden), a boy-obsessed girl approximately Hanna’s age. Hanna gets a crash course in adolescent desire before Marisa’s unsavory, amoral associate, Isaacs (Tom Hollander), and his skinhead henchmen, arrive in the village.

On a superficial, structural level, Hanna is a Bourne-style chase thriller. Consciously avoiding Paul Greengrass’ shaky-cam style, Wright reverts a more conventional, cleaner style (i.e., visual composition, lighting, editing, etc.) that allows for a settled sense of spatial geography, making Hanna’s actions, as well as the actions of the other characters, easy to follow and comprehend.

Wright and his screenwriters connect Hanna’s physical (and inner) journey to fairy tales of the Grimm Brothers variety, directly (an actual location in Leipzig) or indirectly (the icy forest setting of the opening scenes, Marisa Wiegler as evil stepmother). Wright even lingers on Marisa as she stops to choose a set of pumps from her walk-in closet, a visual link to Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witches. Marisa represents the malevolent stepmother, willing to use violence, up to and including murder, to achieve her (murky) ends.

But Hanna is no fairy tale princess or damsel in distress, she’s an odd, disconcerting mix of Jason Bourne and naive, uncertain teenager — a stranger in the strange land of adolescence angst. With her origin shrouded in mystery (Why does Wiegler want her, anyway?) and a lifetime of survivalist/combat training, she’s the equivalent of a super-heroine, albeit one without superpowers or a fetish for costumed crime-fighting like last year’s Hit-Girl.

Wright consciously avoids fetishizing or sexualizing Hanna. She’s either covered in thick winter clothing, a drab orange jumpsuit, or, after making her escape, traditional Moroccan dress. Only later does she begin wearing age- and western culture-appropriate clothing, but even there the clothing choices are nondescript, in marked opposition to the depiction of female characters in Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch. Unlike Snyder’s fetishized female characters, Hanna also has a proper name, not a pet name or nick name.

Surprisingly, Wright pushes Hanna’s PG-13 rating near the R-rating level, trading in blood and gore (shown briefly in inserts) for a body count that can be described as disconcerting and disquieting. Although Wright leaves the fates of several characters off-screen (probably to preserve the PG-13 rating), there’s little doubt about what happens to them and why, a decision that belies and undercuts the symmetry between the opening scene and the last, sequel-ready shot.