Once upon a time, I anxiously awaited to see the film Hanna. I’ve been eager to see it ever since I read about it at Women and Hollywood almost a year ago. I’m often excited to watch movies featuring women and girls due to the dearth of female characters depicted in films. But my feminist radar always accompanies me…you could say it’s my date to the movies. While I love to see a strong kick-ass woman on-screen, giving a woman a gun doesn’t equate empowerment. But Hanna delights and surprises with its nuanced characters and gender commentary.
Saoirse Ronan stars as the title character Hanna; a 16-year-old trained by her ex-CIA father (Eric Bana) to be a lethal assassin. Her entire life, she’s lived in the remote wilderness with only her father as her companion. When Hanna embarks on her own to complete a mission, she discovers a whole new world she never knew existed.
Accompanied by a great, pounding soundtrack courtesy of The Chemical Brothers, the film features visually stunning, stylized shots and exhilarating action sequences. But it’s the character development that sets the film apart. Bana as Hanna’s father is a fantastic action star (seriously, why isn’t this guy more famous??) and Cate Blanchett plays her role Marissa, the CIA operative determined to bring Hanna down, with creepy malevolence (all I’m going to say is look away when she brushes her teeth….ewwwww).
But the film truly belongs to the captivating Ronan. Despite being a ruthless killer, she imbues her character with compassion and tenderness. While a taut, suspenseful thriller packed with action, there’s a surprising amount of humor and warmth, particularly in Hanna’s interaction with a young female tourist named Sophie (played brilliantly by the hilarious scene-stealing Jessica Barden) and her family. A fearless warrior, Hanna is strong, independent and resourceful as well as socially awkward since she’s been sheltered from other people her whole life. Hanna doesn’t know who she is; she’s searching to figure that out so the film becomes a journey of her self-discovery. Ronan says of her character,
“We meet her as she goes out on her own, and when she does she is fascinated by everyone and everything she comes across. My favorite quality of hers is that she is non-judgmental; she shows an open mind to, and a fascination with, everything.”
The film passes the Bechdel test as each of the female characters talk to each other and often about topics other than boys and men. Hanna finds friendship with Sophie and her mother Rachel (Olivia Williams). In an interview, Director Joe Wright discussed the roles of Sophie, a celeb infatuated teen who’s a product of consumer culture and her mother Rachel, “a lost feminist.” He wanted Hanna to observe these two juxtaposing “portraits of females within society.”
Unlike the women in the recent train-wreck Sucker Punch, Hanna is not sexualized. Wright says Hanna “doesn’t use her sexuality, instead relying on a hunter’s instinct, ‘in this age of gross sexualization of young people.’” Some have claimed that Sucker Punch is an anthem of girl-power. But infantilized women gyrating around merely for some male pervo’s fantasy doesn’t signify empowerment. Wright slams Zack Snyder’s misogynistic piece of trash (aka Sucker Punch) and its faux feminism, calling it “bullshit.” YES!!! SO glad to hear someone in the film industry speak out about sexism. Hanna, who is not a sex object and doesn’t conform to gender binaries, is significantly more of a role model than those sexed-up Barbie dolls.
While I loved Hanna, it does suffer from a few problems. Like many action heroines before her, Hanna is of course still white and blond (c’mon Hollywood, let’s see some diversity!). With her sweet face and lethal skills, she’s reminiscent of Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass, although Hanna doesn’t drop expletives like ‘cunt.’ But a reoccurring issue is that strong, assertive female roles in films are often played by adolescent girls, not women (Winter’s Bone, True Grit). That’s part of the reason I love Aliens, Terminator II, Kill Bill and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; in our youth-obsessed culture, they are tough bad-ass women, not girls.
Often in action films as in fairy tales, female characters have only a male family member or role model, with no mother or female role model/caretaker in sight. Hanna is raised and trained solely by her father. Despite the female friendship, the film still can’t resist pitting women against each other as Ronan and Blanchett engage in a battle of blood and wits. I might not have had such a problem with the two going head to head if Blanchett wasn’t playing the childless evil stepmother role (and yes, the fact that she doesn’t have children is emphasized), as if choosing not to have children equates evil or a lack of empathy (hmmmm maybe someone should tell my uterus).
Continuing the evil stepmother archetype (or the Wicked Witch as Wright referred to Blanchett’s character), Wright weaves a fairy tale theme throughout the film, wanting to achieve “a dream space” and use it as a catalyst to delve into the subconscious. He reinforces the motif as Hanna reads a book of Grimm’s fairy tales, her rendezvous point is at “Grimm’s House” and Blanchett even steps out of an enormous fiberglass wolf’s mouth as she stalks her prey. Just as in Grimm’s fairy tales, the film showcases a delicate balance of cruelty and mercy.
Despite some of the plot’s problematic tropes, the film exudes a feminist aura. Not defined by her gender, Hanna is a fierce survivor, relying on her tenacious skills and cunning. Hanna is not some sidekick or ancillary character; she is front and center, the soul of the film. Asked about the film’s themes of female empowerment, Wright replied,
“I don’t know if it is a female empowerment story, because in a way although I think it’s probably a kind of feminist story, in the sense that Hanna, there’s something quite androgynous about her. Although I’m glad that she’s a girl, she could even probably be a boy. She doesn’t really ever do anything that is gender specific…So, she’s a character that is outside of the kind of binary oppositional forces of male and female, black and white. She’s not in that discussion at all.”
A fantastic film filled with rich characters, Hanna will linger in your memory. What I enjoyed most was that we see the world through a young girl’s naïve eyes full of amazement and wonder. Too often, we see tales told from the male perspective. If more action films echoed these themes, the feminist critic in me might just live happily ever after…