Fairy Tale Matricide in ‘Hanna’

I rewatched Joe Wright’s Hanna the other night, curious if my initial admiration was too high.

I still appreciate his adaptation of Pride & Prejudice, if only partly because I’m so averse to the self-indulgently long Jane Austen adaptations out there (A&E, I’m thinking of you) and Wright’s film is a pleasant diversion, along with the recent (and much different) ‘PBS Masterpiece’ mini-series, Emma.

Wright’s P&P as well as the newer Emma adaptations could exist apart from the Bonnet and Carriage Scandals the other Austen flicks solely rely on for drama. There’s more story-world in them.

Then there’s the schmaltzy trickery of Wright’s Atonement. The film’s ending (or rather, endings plural) yanked all my trust in the picture’s momentum, all interest too. Or you can slog through Anna Karenina (is the whole thing staged in the theater? oh. brilliant.)

Hanna Joe WrightHanna is a simple, straight-forward thriller. Refn’s Drive is a loud mess, which relies heavily on exposition and force-feeding the viewers its themes (also, any filmmaker who wants to include the “Scorpion and the Frog” fable should stop and ask if they can use it better than The Crying Game did).

Hanna, on the other hand, moves quickly, using more visual cues than exposition (the only “expositional” scene is an agency meeting where Cate Blanchett’s Marissa Wiegler discusses the professional background of Eric Bana’s Erik Heller).

What makes the film so much fun is how it communicates so much of its experience through visuals and sound effect. Like Wright’s Pride & Prejudice, the economical storytelling in Hanna has little to do with Character-Driven Narrative. It’s more about the world of the film and a character’s (and audience’s) experience in them.

this is a fairy tale, right?

The fairy tale elements in Hanna are relatively easy to spot, introduced at first with Hanna reading Grimm’s Fairytales (a copy previously owned by her biological mother, Johanna Zadeck). It’s a brief nod to how Grimm’s fairy tales will play in the film, including a contact named Mr. Grimm who lives in a house right out of the book.

This whole fairy tale business is fairly obvious. When we first see the inside of Mr. Grimm’s house, it’s with a show-off rollover rig shot making the audience aware of mushrooms hanging upside down from the ceiling, foreshadowing Mr. Grimm’s similar death. The first person to betray Erik in the film does so calling the authorities from a phone near some intentionally placed mushroom decorative window pieces.

Fun stuff. But the meat of the fairy tale references come with Hanna and evil Mother Marissa (“the witch is dead,” Hanna writes Erik in reference to Marissa).

When Marissa visits the Safari club to recruit Mr. Isaacs (a great Tom Hollander – although, must every movie villain whistle in order for a scary psychopath promotion?) to kill Hanna, what was alluded to with the appearance of the Grimm’s Fairytale book is now strangely and threateningly incarnate with the club’s music, costumes and stage.

Mr. Isaacs keeps up his whistling and his “to grandmother’s house we go” dialogue, but Hanna is primarily the story of a girl who is trying to escape a dangerous world the adults have created, adults who, like those in the fairy tales, pose a threat to the child (even Isaacs and his goons are all brought in and taken out by Erik and Marissa – they’re all from the same fairy tale nightmare).

When Hanna’s with Sophie and the Spanish boys, she looks at one and says, “Is this where we kiss?” Hanna isn’t like those fairy tales (she tackles the boy instead of kissing him), the pleasant fairy tale bits don’t match the life Hanna’s been conditioned to live.

the sounds of ‘Hanna’

When the film begins, we don’t know it occurs in the present period until a plane flies over Hanna. The sound of the aircraft overhead cues a sense of excitement and dread in the viewer, for Hanna – she’s about to flip the switch and enter a new world.

Later, when her father, Erik, exits Berlin’s bus station, he stops for a moment and looks up as an aircraft passes over. Like Hanna, he’s about to descend into a world of unseen/unknown foes (sent by an enemy he previously thought dead).

Hanna’s “What is music?” question in the beginning is followed up by the “training montage” soundtracked by the percussion of sticks beating sticks, target practice with antlers and Hanna’s rehearsed bio. It’s a clever scene with the sound effects affecting music – something the film maintains throughout, something I love the film for doing.

Hanna first encounters “music” when she comes upon a group of Arabic women washing clothes in the creek, ululating.

Then in the room, Hanna is overwhelmed by the cacophony of a fluorescent bulb, the music on the television, the electric kettle, the ceiling fan, the phone ringing, helicopters, the war on the television (which sounds out at the same time as the TV’s concert), the shower, &c.

These overwhelming sounds show up again when Erik attacks Marissa at her apartment with the sound of Johanna’s tape playing, the bullets hitting the door/walls/couch, the phone ringing (again!) and Erik kicking the door.

Hanna Joe Wright eyes 1Erik and Marissa can’t hold a normal discussion, they do so while shooting each other in a scene that’s similar via sound effects to the “training” scene earlier – this is what they’ve trained Hanna for, not a normal life, but one that’s just as extravagant and more terrifying than the fairy tales.

When Hanna walks through the Berlin station and alleys, she passes a man in a wheelchair ululating, a phone ringing (!) and a man at a corner playing music. But she’s no longer fascinated or overwhelmed by the world she’s been thrust into, she wants to escape it.

the family unit

The three characters who shape our experience of the film are Hanna, Erik Heller and Marissa Wiegler. It’s these three’s narrative point-of-views who shape our interaction with the film and, I think, form a loose family unit from which the film derives much of its drama.

The primary family unit is mirrored in a throwaway sub-plot involving Hanna encountering and traveling with a family led by a father who worries over Hanna and a mother who encourages her independence.

Both Erik and Marissa’s storylines center around Hanna, fighting for her, over her (the brief scene of Marissa brushing her teeth is the only exception and it’s a tossable character detail, I can’t figure why it was kept or in the film at all).

The Johanna Zadeck flashback occurs from both Erik and Marissa’s point-of-view beginning in the car and the billboard respectively. This is where their stories begin: Erik saving Hanna, disappearing and Marissa shooting Johanna whose last words are “She will never be yours.”

The Marissa-as-Mother metaphor is elaborated when Marissa visits Johanna’s mother and shoots her in front of Johanna’s framed photo portrait. The grandmother asks, Marissa, “Did you ever have children?” and after Marissa kills her, she says Hanna looks “like her mother.”

At the end, when Marissa exits the wolf’s mouth, Hanna tells her you have to “let me go” before Marissa yells, “Don’t walk away from me, young lady.” It’s a bit of dialogue that further makes the link (perhaps too obvious) between Marissa as Mother.

killing Mother and Father

The film begins with Hanna hunting and as she approaches the elk, there’s a shot of the elk’s eye reflecting Hanna’s approach, right before she shoots it with the affectionately inappropriate, “I just missed your heart” (the line bookends the film, the end with Hanna killing Marissa).

Later in the film, when Hanna retreats to Grimm’s house, she pulls back the window curtains to reveal Marissa looking in, but it’s Marissa’s eye (recalling the elk) that’s emphasized here. Eyes play as a visual cue earlier in the long tracking shot where Erik faces Marissa’s agents (there’s eyes along the alley walls). Erik and Hanna are trying to escape the same person, the same past, &c.

HannaMarissa’s digital eyes (cameras) watched Hanna earlier as she was being interrogated. It’s a great set piece, including shots of Marissa watching with reflections of the monitor screens in the glass.

In the interrogation room, Hanna notices the cameras and, in a 360-degree shot, shoots them (there’s a follow-up 360-degree shot when Hanna escapes the base and is in the desert – where she was previously encircled by cameras and walls, she’s now encircled by vast open space).

The most noticeable thing about Marissa is her red-orange hair (when Marissa’s doppelganger interviews Hanna, it’s the hair that originally leads us to believe it is Marissa before the reveal). But the color, Marissa’s pursuit of Erik and Hanna, is further emphasized through its use in Hanna’s orange jumpsuit at the base and in the tracking shot with Erik  (the red colors the lighting at the Safari club and the showdown at Grimm’s house too).

Marissa’s earlier “Looks like her mother” answer takes on another meaning after the portrait is cracked from the bullet’s impact, sprayed with blood. What was previously a portrait of Johanna becomes a portrait of Marissa, Hanna’s “mother.”

And when Marissa’s “eye” looks through Grimm’s window, it’s through cracked glass recalling Johanna’s portrait. This shot both further emphasizes Marissa-as-mother but it also serves as a kind of foreshadowing (Marissa will die, like Johanna, like the elk).

There’s a bit of visual rhyme overkill in Hanna’s amusement park pursuit of Marissa where she encounters a deer in a tunnel – I’m not sure it does much more than foreshadow Marissa’s end.

In Mariss’s final encounter with Erik, she asks him, “Why now, Erik?” “Kids grow up,” he says.

Children grow up but it’s interesting to note that both Erik and Marissa die in children’s parks. More than that, both parents die in manners that visually rhyme with Hanna’s elk-kill.

The juxtaposition of Erik and the thug on the merry-go-round, which recalls the earlier juxtaposition of Hanna and the disemboweled elk lying in the snow.

Hanna has triumphed over both of her parents (one, Erik, who didn’t “prepare her” and the other, Marissa, who won’t “let her go” – a reversal of the subplot’s family parents). Hanna leaves Erik and Marissa, her father and mother, dead in the children’s parks, escaping the threat of fairy tale adults.

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