Later this year you will likely flock to your local movie theater to watch a young man become a super soldier at the height of WWII. This month you can see a somewhat less stylized but no less sensational story about a young girl who was born into a similar life of action and international adventure. Her name is Hanna and she can kill you with your own knife while it’s still in your hand.
Joe Wright (Atonement) directs this well-balanced coming of age story set within the cold and unforgiving world of assassins and espionage. The film follows the titular heroine who has lived a reclusive life in the forest with her rogue CIA-agent father on a vengeful mission that takes her all across the map. Trained to survive in the harshest conditions and fight like the spawn of Lara Croft and Rambo she is pursued by deadly adversaries as she inches closer to her primary target a ruthless CIA handler who had mysterious past dealings with her Dad all while discovering what life outside the woods is like.
While star Saoirse Ronan’s visceral turn is a marvel to observe so too is Wright’s. Like his protagonist he ventures into the unknown with this material taking the reigns of a film that couldn’t be any more foreign to him. Coming off of past projects grounded in romance and realism he forges new territory with Hanna delivering a fresh approach to the at-times tired spy thriller. He presents the major plot points of the story patiently delicately hinting at the big picture and always leaving you pining for more. Though the twist is ultimately predictable the fun part is putting the pieces of the puzzle together on your own. You’ll find more brilliance in his method by dissecting the picture piece by piece. His use of sound in both the film’s abstract score (from the sorely missed Chemical Brothers) and its effects which phase in and out at calculated points is in part a cinematic experiment that plays with perception in ways that audiences may not have experienced in a mainstream movie. There are also a few visual motifs in select scenes (most notably a killer fight sequence that ends with Eric Bana exterminating a handful of Agency henchman) that tell a parallel visual tale to supplement the narrative.
Thematically Hanna is even more complex. Screenwriters Seth Lochhead and David Farr explore the limitations of a disconnected mind in their Black List-certified script giving their curious character the opportunity to learn much about society and her self while hitchhiking across continents. Of greater significance is the culture clash of Western materialism and Eastern minimalism manifested in the form of a British family traveling abroad that Hanna befriends (the young daughter played by Jessica Barden is a poster child for consumerism) and the contrast between Cate Blanchett’s Marissa Wiegler and Bana’s Erik Heller.
Provoking thought while providing plentiful doses of popcorn entertainment the film works on so many levels and is a unique entry in the collective canon of assassin-on-the-run flicks. Its story is far from groundbreaking but Wright’s surreal visuals and anti-establishment attitude make Hanna a radically original action experience.
Based on Ian McEwan’s equally stirring novel we begin the story in 1935 on the cusp of WWII. Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) a 13-year-old fledgling writer lives with her wealthy family in their enormous English country mansion and on one hot summer day she irrevocably changes the course of three lives including her own. It seems the housekeeper’s son Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) carries a torch for Briony’s older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley). And on this warm day it becomes clear she feels the same way; their love ignites. Little Briony who harbors her own secret crush on Robbie witnesses the beginnings of this love affair and not understanding its meaning feels compelled to interfere going so far as accusing Robbie of a crime he did not commit. He is arrested and whisked away eventually forced into the British army but thankfully the two lovers have a moment before he goes to war to reconnect. Cecilia promises to wait for him urging him to “come back” to her once the madness he is about to become immersed in is over. Meanwhile Briony (played in adult years by Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave) has grown up regretting every single moment of that fateful day and in desperately trying to seek forgiveness finally finds a path to understanding the power of enduring love. The performances in Atonement are nothing less than captivating beginning with the young Irish rose Saoirse Ronan (who is also set to play the lead in Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones). Since it is primarily Briony’s story Ronan must make the first most indelible impression and set the tone for the rest of the movie--and she succeeds on every level. From the moment you see Ronan’s pale face clear-blue eyes and steadfast gait you immediately recognize Briony’s need and determination to make everything in her life just so. Indeed Briony is a strongly focused child and Ronan so embodies the character an Oscar nomination is almost a certainty. As the 18-year-old Briony Garai (Dirty Dancing 2) does the best she can following such a tough act as Ronan but can never quite match the same intensity. On the other hand Redgrave who comes in at the very end as the much older Briony nails it right away adding her own nuances to a character who has lived a full life. Of course Knightley and McAvoy are no slouches either vividly capturing the passion bubbling up between Cecilia and Robbie then turning around and showing the heartache as their love is ripped apart. McAvoy is particularly effecting as his Robbie must also witness some truly horrific wartime scenes. Actually Oscar nods should come fast and furious for everyone in Atonement. With Pride & Prejudice and now Atonement director Joe Wright may have just established himself as the new James Ivory (of Merchant/Ivory fame). Wright is a real visionary for the romantic period piece expertly delivering truly spectacular vistas. From set design to costumes to cinematography the look of Atonement is at once verdant welcoming and then startlingly grim. The first half of Atonement at the Tallis’ country home is certainly the film’s most defining peppered by an effective musical score which uses the sound of a typewriter like a metronome. Through a soft lens Wright displays the general idleness of summer day at a country home like a sunny floral motif that belies an undercurrent of sweating bodies wilting flowers stagnant pools--and an imminent tragic event. Then once Wright moves with Robbie into WWII he actually paints an even more grim view of war then maybe seen before. The one continuous shot of the historical Dunkirk--a French beach on which thousands of British soldiers were forced by the Germans and then waited to be evacuated--is absolutely stunning and surreal. Atonement does drag ever-so-slightly in the middle especially as Briony trains to be a nurse in London but overall this is a film Academy voters eat up with a silver spoon. Expect to be hearing about it in the months to come.
Considered the most popular of Austen’s novels Pride and Prejudice examines the class struggles of England’s 19th century. It revolves around the spirited Bennet family: the headstrong and intelligent Elizabeth (Keira Knightley); her older and more serene sister Jane (Rosamund Pike); their three younger sisters (Jena Malone Talulah Riley Carey Mulligan); their doting father (Donald Sutherland); and their mother (Brenda Blethyn) who’s obsessed with finding the girls suitable husbands. When Lizzie finally meets her match in the aloof Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFayden) she immediately dismisses him as an arrogant ass. But ever so slowly it dawns on Lizzie she may be entirely wrong about Darcy. Is it too late to tell him? An Austen adaptation naturally lends itself to a gathering of fine British actors (or actors who can pretend to be British). Leading the pack is the very lovely Keira Knightley. A far cry from the shotgun-totin’ bounty hunter in Domino the actress certainly gives her most layered performance as Elizabeth. But she’s once again playing a spirited woman who doesn’t adhere to the rules. Guess nobody’s gonna ever put Keira in a corner. As her Mr. Darcy MacFayden plays one of literature’s more enduring romantic figures with style. He gives Colin Firth--who’s considered one of the better Darcys after playing him in a 1995 TV miniseries--a run for his money. The rest of the stellar cast is just as refreshing as ever including Pike (Doom) as the modest beauty Jane and Sutherland as the elder Bennet who is the reason Elizabeth is as independent as she is. This feature film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is entirely different from the last one--the 1940 glossy production starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier. Newcomer Joe Wright gives Pride and Prejudice a definitive indie feel by using the camera in very intimate ways as we watch the fun-loving Bennets interact. Of course filming in the flourishing English countryside doesn’t hurt either. Wright delivers amazing displays of breathtaking beauty from Elizabeth standing on a cliff in Brighton to watching Darcy stride across a field at sunrise to claim his love once and for all. Pride and Prejudice does move a little slowly and it isn’t as rich as the 1995 Oscar-winning Sense and Sensibility but it’s been awhile since we’ve had Austen done in such a wonderfully romantic way. And who couldn’t use a little 19th-century romance?