2011 // USA // Joe Wright // May 4, 2011 // Theatrical Print (Landmark Theaters Harbor East)
Joe Wright's frustrating—and curiously lauded—2007 film Atonement features one of the most egregious illustrations of directorial indulgence from the past decade: an unbroken, five-minute pan of Allied forces stranded on the beach during the Dunkirk evacuation. It's a grand gesture as ambitious as it is pointless, apparently added mainly to satisfy Wright's curiosity about whether he could achieve such a logistical and technical ballet. It's also emblematic of Atonement's broader problems. Wright's employment of epic spectacle, hoary melodrama, and clumsy metatextual gestures conceal the fact that his adaptation of Ian McEwan's celebrated novel loses its way after an admittedly crackling first act.
Happily, the lean, jittery spy thriller Hanna seems to have liberated Wright to a degree. Freed from the aspirations of a sweeping, thematically dense work like Atonement, the directors guiltlessly savors his most garish habits and turns them into a feature-length celebration of globetrotting style over substance. The film's raison d'être seems to be defined as whatever scene is currently unfolding, whether it's Saoirse Ronan stalking reindeer with a handmade bow in a snowbound forest, or Eric Bana going bare-fisted with a legion of suit-and-tie-clad intelligence agents in a subway station. Then—zip!—it's off to the next shiny object. It may not be art, but, damn, at least it's not bloated or ponderous.
There's a plot lurking inside this bauble somewhere: Erik (Bana) has raised daughter Hanna (Ronan) in the arctic wilderness to be a perfect survivor and predator, waiting for the appropriate time to unleash her on CIA mastermind Marissa (Cate Blanchett) because of something vengeance something murdered wife something super-soldier program something something. Wright emphasizes that Marissa lives in a cold, sterile apartment and is scrupulous about her oral hygiene, which means she must be dastardly. You just can't trust someone who takes gum disease seriously.
The whole thing is about a mile wide and an inch deep, and often ridiculous, but it's never outright stupid. There just isn't enough story to support stupidity. Indeed, the film privileges the thrilling and the visually mesmerizing to the extent that it has blessedly little tolerance for scenes of dreary exposition. Wright prefers to linger dreamily on a fireside gypsy flamenco performance, or envision a CIA holding facility as a menacing and improbable labyrinth of arcs and long shadows. The film's centerpiece in this respect is the visage of Ronan herself, whose thousand-yard icy gaze, framed by ghostly eyebrows and tangled cornsilk tresses, serves as a signpost amid all the bizarre sets and outlandish action. From the moment the viewer first glimpses them, those eyes signal what's coming: swift, unadulterated death at the hands of a gawky teen.