Thursday, October 8, 2015

Theory Thursday: "Hanna" (2011) is Joe Wright's Best Movie

Saoirse Ronan in Hanna
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: Pan is coming to theaters
Theory: Hanna is Joe Wright's best movie

Cate Blanchett
Among the directors currently working, I think that Joe Wright is one of the most promising. What I like about his style is that he is able to adapt fictional classics while bringing something lively and exciting to the overall production. He came to prominence with the Best Picture nominated Atonement, which featured an impressive craft that turned it into one of the most compelling films of that year. Add in a collaboration with composer Dario Marianelli, and you'll get my favorite period pieces of the past few years. He would later return to the well with the more problematic but nonetheless entertaining Anna Karenina - a film that took the book's construct and turned it into a play. Wright's style is something that compliments the past while also bringing something more energetic to the scenario.

It's generally why I am looking forward to Pan, even if it looks to be quite a departure from every film that he did prior. It has more special effects, bombastic energy, and accessibility than any of his literary adaptations. True, it does seem obvious for him to adapt a classic story - even if it's a tad outside of the dramatic nature that he has made a name for himself in. If you have to question this, simply look at the trailers for the film in which Pan, in the face of danger, shouts "Holy booty." It's a nod to that obvious expletive statement, but it's also reflective that maybe this film will not have any moment as emotionally wrenching as the conclusion in Atonement. Maybe things won't come to pass with that catharsis. Maybe this film, so help us, will just be a film about having fun.

It's easy to complain about Wright "selling out" with Pan by making a less obvious film than his prestige dramas. However, it's something that is worth acclaim over. Beyond Atonement and Anna Karenina, he hasn't been nearly as successful in doing prestige. Many will remember The Soloist, which pitted a Los Angeles Times journalist into a story about a mentally challenged music savant. It had Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx. It sounded like the perfect combination for success. Instead, it was arguably too sentimental. I think that going that route instead of Pan wouldn't have done Wright any favors. Of course, I don't remain so optimistic because of Pan looking like a great movie. I am more excited because he is returning to a genre that I think suits him very well. Don't believe me? Then you clearly haven't seen Hanna.

I know that the common notion is that Wright's best film is Atonement. There's no denying its impact and overall quality outweigh that of Hanna. However, I think that what Hanna did was show a different side of Wright within his obsession of literary stories. We didn't just see people emote, we saw them experience the conventions within an entirely different format. Saoirse Ronan returns from Atonement to star as the lead in a film about a young spy who becomes wanted by an organization, lead by Cate Blanchett. Mix in a lot of action and a soundtrack from The Chemical Brothers, and you'll get one of the most unique action films of the decade so far. It's exciting, riveting, and maybe Wright's most impressive film to date.

It may not seem like much at first. There have been many young spies throughout film history that have graced the screen. In fact, this film was on the heels of Kick-Ass' iconic Hit Girl character. By comparison, Hanna wasn't as scrappy or raw as her. She was actually more nuanced and compelling over time. The story isn't so much about her fighting off Blanchett's force, but about the journey to become an independent woman in a society that is foreign to her. She is, by every account, oblivious to the world's proceedings. She is a blank slate that we see evolve over the course of the film. She forms emotions and becomes a woman with a certain set of skills.

Here's where the ingenuity begins to unravel. It first becomes prevalent in the soundtrack, which is an infectious blend of electronica and fairy tale beats. Characters are seen at points whistling the melody as well. This is recognizable in "The Devil is in the Details," which serves as the film's theme and features an almost childlike melody that bounces around and incorporates sounds you're more likely to hear in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs than an assassin movie. It's dreamlike and compliments the visuals, which slowly enter into its own fairy-tale like universe. Once you accept that Blanchett is the equivalent to an evil step mother, you'll begin to see the magic unfold. She is comical, occasionally talks in an accent, and has the drive to stop her while her father (played by Eric Bana) tries to stop this.

Thankfully, the action surrounding the film is actually very well shot. For a man who is better known for character dramas, he rivets the tension out of every frame, including a chase through a container park. This film may be more personal and has more character development than the average action film, but it still knows how to balance it. There's plenty of chase scenes told fluidly with camera narration. It also helps that Ronan is an actress who is both strikingly awkward and inquisitive in ways that compliment her slow rise to independence and disconnection from Blanchett's character. Even if various things are served mostly as metaphors, they all come to fruition in the third act. For some, this may be the most jarring point, but it brings the themes home nicely.

Towards the end of the film, Hanna escapes to a theme park that features a lot of iconography based around Grimm fairy tales. The scenery is a mix of dark and dour with more colorful and childlike. As Blanchett chases her through this, the metaphors become clearer, especially as she is seen emerging from the Big Bad Wolf's mouth. She is that fairy tale creature that we as readers have always despised. Beyond the various twists in the movie, it's here that the film manages to feel more like the perfect update that has been desperately needed for a century now. It may not be the best, but it serves as a contemporary take that is more honest than any Disney adaptation nowadays is. It's powerful and cyclical in a fashion that works not only as a dramatic development, but as an action scene.

So, what's exactly so ambitious about a film that merely borrows fairy tale culture for an action film? It's because Wright feels like he knows what he's doing. The Chemical Brothers may be the first tip-off, but it's inevitably in the production design and direction that he's allowed to boast. Beyond the finale, the sets look breathtaking and slowly devolve into a land of wonderment as the story becomes more clear. In Wright's direction, he rotates the camera to depict unease, a change in atmosphere. Where most use it as a gimmick, Wright uses his crafts with purpose, resulting in something wholly unique and satisfying.

I don't want to discredit Atonement or Anna Karenina at all. I think those are marvelous films worthy of viewing. However, I think that Hanna is more prevalent about what Wright can be as a director when left to his own devices. I know that technically The Soloist did similar ground, but Hanna does so by combining his various interests - production design, literature, complicated relationships - and throws them into a new and satisfying format. It epitomizes everything that works about him and throws it in a contemporary setting that works for various reasons. It's a unique and powerful film that unfortunately doesn't get its due anymore. In a world of dull action films, it's interesting to see one directly take on fairy tales and update it to a modern context that isn't just hackneyed, but actually says something of value.

Between Ronan and Blanchett's performances, this is just a very entertaining film that I feel will gain a reputation as time goes on. I know that Wright (even to me) will be the director of great period pieces. However, it still seems fascinating that for one film, he broke protocol and explored the present while incorporating the past. I am not sure if Pan will be able to blend his eye for action, but I am very curious to see how it works because this film gave me hope that he's a director with so much more to offer. His career is fairly young, so for all I know, we're going to see him tackle something as wonderful and intelligently complex as Hanna sometime down the line. It's just a matter of when.

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