In the lovingly photographed opening scenes of Joe Wright's surprisingly entertaining and original thriller, a young, blonde woman with ice-blue eyes appears from an Arctic thicket and fells a deer with an expertly fired arrow.
This is Hanna (Saoirse Ronan), a naive but dangerous 16-year-old who has been raised by her father Erik (Eric Bana) in the wastes of northern Finland and in complete ignorance of the wilder world. He's also trained her to be a crack assassin, putting her through her paces daily and teaching her to be constantly on her guard. Sounds like bad parenting, but there's more to it than that.
Without giving too much away, Erik has hidden Hanna in this frozen wilderness for years in order to protect her. When she was a child, Hanna's mother was shot dead by a self-serving CIA agent called Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett). Wiegler nearly killed Hanna too, but thanks to Erik she escaped, and ever since she could walk and talk he's been preparing her for the confrontation with Wiegler that he believes is inevitable. When the CIA locates Erik, he sends Hanna off into the world, with orders to meet up with him in Berlin after she's completed a tricky mission.
Hanna is to allow herself to be captured, then kill Wiegler when she comes to interrogate her. But things go wrong, and after Hanna manages to escape from a US military base in Morocco, Wiegler and some very nasty henchman are hot on her trail.
That's as much of screenwriters David Farr and Seth Lochhead's plot as one dare give away, and if it sounds daft, in a sense it is. But Joe Wright does such a good job of telling it that he turns a bog-standard conspiracy thriller into a bold, beautiful, original and very memorable cinematic flight of fancy. Wright is a flashy director who draws attention to himself in his films: when he gets it wrong, as in the awful The Soloist, the results can be depressing, but when he hits his stride as he does here his film-making achieves an unstoppable momentum.
When I first saw an advance clip of this film, I thought it would be hard to take the sylph-like Ronan seriously as a high-kicking assassin. In fact, you accept the sight of her throwing men twice her size about the place without a problem, partly because of plot context but mainly due to Ronan's incredibly committed and impressive performance. Her breathtaking portrayal of a damaged innocent dominates the film to such an extent that Bana and Blanchett are reduced to supporting players.
The element that makes Hanna more interesting than your average teen assassin is the fact that she has been raised in total ignorance of the modern world. Her constant wonder at the noise and squalor of human civilisation makes her seem like an alien dropped from another world, an impression heightened by her deeply eccentric way of interacting with humankind. When a gentle young Spanish boy leans in to give her an innocent kiss, he soon finds out he's taking his life in his hands.
More humorous interludes arrive courtesy of a right-on, Guardian-reading English family who help Hanna escape from Morocco and make her way to mainland Europe. But the movie pauses for breath rarely, and has the kind of forward momentum you'd expect from a Bourne film. Though he sometimes overdoes it, Wright's direction is full of energy and invention, and is married with a terrific Chemical Brothers soundtrack to really compelling effect. It's great fun, especially if you don't stand back and try to make sense of it, and Ronan has made yet another quantum leap towards A-list stardom.
Day & Night