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Not Your Typical Teenage Female Assassin

Cate Blanchett in Hanna.

Filmmaker Joe Wright on Hanna, his arthouse action movie

It would not be incorrect to describe Hanna as a kickass chick flick. But it would be misleading, to the extent that it made you anticipate something along the lines of Sucker Punch or Red Riding Hood. Think instead of something in the arena of Run Lola Run, the Jason Bourne movies and, if you remember it, Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves: an action movie with distinct arthouse influences.

The film opens with our title character, played by 15-year-old Irish actress Saoirse Ronan, hunting alone in a bleak winter landscape. It is part of her training regime, devised by her father (Eric Bana), the only other human being she has ever seen. For what is she being trained? That is a secret known only to a rogue CIA operative (Cate Blanchett) on the other side of the world. The spook has been looking for Hanna for a very long time, and becomes obsessed when she thinks she has found her. What she doesn’t know is that Hanna has allowed herself to be found: Her training is complete.

From there, it’s a chase around the world, kinetically edited to a pulsing score by the Chemical Brothers. It may not be what you expect from director Joe Wright, who made his name with a sumptuous adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and the Oscar-nominated adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement. But recall that film’s famous five-minute take on the beach after the Battle of Dunkirk, and you’ll understand that Wright has wider cinematic aspirations than simply bringing novels to life.

I spoke with Wright in Los Angeles recently, where he said that he has never been a fan of action films per se. “I find that most of them are misogynistic, right-wing, and fairly vile,” he admitted. But he did admire his friend Paul Greengrass’ Jason Bourne movies, which he calls “socially conscious action films.”

His inspirations for Hanna are unlikely to ring a bell with fans of, say, Chuck Norris. “Aesthetically I was looking at films like Robert Bresson’s The Pickpocket, for the economy of shooting style and for the clarity as well. I didn’t want to imitate the fast cutting handheld action sequences in the Bourne movies, which I feel have been done too many times recently. I was looking to French thrillers like Diva and [Leos Carax’s] Boy Meets Girl, stuff that was expressionistic but also had a clarity to it.

“And we didn’t have a lot of money, so we were forced to think of ways to create an atmosphere around Hanna where she was slightly magical and would appear and disappear. We did that with elliptical cuts rather than special effects whooshes.” Pointing to a particular sequence in which our heroine inexplicably gets from one place to another, Wright acknowledges that it’s “totally impossible, but I enjoyed that kind of playfulness. I think that, as long as you give the audience an emotional truth and plausibility, they’ll go anywhere with you.”

The script’s undercurrent of fairy-tales is what drew Wright to the project. “I like the darkness of true fairy-tales, as opposed to the colonized fairy-tales of Disney,” he says. “I grew up in a puppet theater in London. My parents had it, they would put on productions of Little Mermaid or Rapunzel, so they’ve always been a part of my consciousness. I wanted the film to operate on a subconscious level. I liked the idea that it’s not reality but it’s not quite fantasy in the common sense—it’s more a dreamscape where things are almost right and real but not quite.”

Wright shares that fascination with the collective subconscious with the filmmaker he credits as his greatest influence, David Lynch. “He totally changed my life. When I was 15 my parents went away for a summer and I discovered pot and David Lynch. I watched Blue Velvet on rotation about 15 times, thinking it was the funniest film I’d ever seen in my life. [His films have] that kind of mystical thing that there’s something just beyond your rational understanding. There’s an undefined symbolism in his work that I enjoy, where things are symbols for something but you’re not quite sure what.”

Hs own filmmaking imagination was freed by the fact that for the first time he was not working from a book. (His third film, The Soloist, about a homeless musical prodigy, was based on the memoir by LA Times columnist Steve Lopez.)

“It was a lot freer making this movie—there was a lot more improvisation. We could go anywhere, do anything, and that was really liberating, at times kind of scary as well—options paralysis did occasionally sink in. But generally the idea that we could discover an abandoned amusement park in [the former East Berlin] and decide, ‘Wow, this is a great location, let’s shoot here’—that was great.”

Watch the trailer for Hanna

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