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The Black-Ops Fairy Tale

Hanna is a very strange mix of paranoia, pyrotechnics, and fable.


Saoirse Ronan in Hanna.  

Something spooky happens in the artfully delirious new thriller Hanna when natural light hits Saoirse Ronan’s pale-blue eyes. Playing a motherless teen raised in the Arctic wilderness and trained as a warrior by her rogue-CIA-agent father (Eric Bana), Ronan has unruly coils of white-blonde hair and a near-albino cast; her features are virtually bleached out. When Hanna reenters civilization, she moves warily—there are assassins everywhere—yet in childish wonderment. Those eyes linger briefly on electric lights, television sets, and fellow teenagers, as if trying to process what they see, their otherworldly glow like the nuclear fusion of little mermaid and machine.

The “Little Mermaid” references are right there onscreen, along with “Hansel and Gretel” and more from the Brothers Grimm: The climax unfolds outside something called Grimm’s House, in an empty amusement park where the film’s wicked witch (Cate Blanchett) strides out of a ride tunnel through the jaws of a wolf. Yes, this farrago of fairy tale and sci-fi conspiracy flick is, on one level, howlingly obvious. But there are howls of derision and howls of amazement, and mine were of the latter kind, mostly. Director Joe Wright turns Hanna into a crazily inspired parable—a tour de force—of growing up, separating from parents, and taking on the false mother, the big bad bitch, with longbows, guns, and martial arts.

The first half of Hanna is the better by leagues. There’s a timeless quality to the early scenes in the toasty Arctic cabin, in which Hanna and her father, Erik, wear pelts and he tells her he knows she’ll one day want to leave the nest, and that when she does she’ll come face-to-face with Marissa Wiegler (Blanchett) and one of them will die. Why? That’s the mystery.

There’s no music until CIA choppers descend on the cabin with a deafening metallic shudder that segues imperceptibly into a Chemical Brothers techno-blast—and then Hanna wakes up in a subterranean room surrounded by cameras like Dalí-esque eyeballs. What follows is a stunning merger of thriller pyrotechnics and surrealism, a stroboscopic chase through tunnels past giant, swirling fans. The visual punch line in the Moroccan desert makes no geographic sense but is, as I’ve said, the amazing kind of howler.

Blanchett’s performance is the other kind. But give her points for embodying the freakiest of control freaks—compulsively flossing until her gums bleed, her frozen mask a study in murderous repression. Vying with her for overacting honors is Tom Hollander, who plays a hired assassin as a sadistic queen in a yellow tracksuit who whistles while he works (and, awkwardly, while he lurks). The narrative gets diffuse toward the end—backstories are often letdowns when they come to the front. What keeps us hooked is Ronan, a young actress of seemingly limitless abilities, and the tension she creates between Hanna’s inhumanly agile body and quizzical eyes, which turn cold only when she pulls the trigger.

Robert Redford’s The Conspirator centers on the trial of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), who ran a boardinghouse frequented by the men who plotted to kill Abraham Lincoln, among them John ­Wilkes Booth and her own son. Arrested along with many others after the assassination, she is judged by a military tribunal that has no inclination, whatever the evidence, to let anyone off—incensing her hitherto reluctant lawyer, Aiken (the excellent James McAvoy). It is Aiken who articulates the message: that the Constitution must—pace the vengeful Secretary of War Stanton (Kevin Kline)—apply to all, guilty or innocent, in peace or in peril.

It would be easy to dismiss The Conspirator as a dramatized civil-liberties lecture with obvious implications re: Guantánamo. But if the decade since 9/11 has taught us anything, it’s that we haven’t been very well taught. Redford does a fine, economical job re-creating the horror of the assassination, the dying president barely glimpsed but the bowls of blood carried from his deathbed all too vivid. And because Wright’s Surratt is so starkly private, even withholding, her fate becomes part of a larger tragedy.

The screenwriter, James Solomon, does the poor job only a liberal could at making the case for a Cheneyesque “dark side,” and he isn’t helped by Kline’s wooden acting. Too bad. The Conspirator is eloquent enough to let the other side have its say.

In Arthur, the spectacularly grating remake of Steve Gordon’s 1981 P. G. Wodehouse simulation (this time, Peter Baynham miswrote, Jason Winer misdirected), Russell Brand gives a career-killing performance. In the grisly opening, his drunken heir dons a Batman suit, forces Luis Guzmán (as his luckless chauffeur) into Burt Ward shorts, and leaps into his Batmobile for a joyride through Manhattan. Brand’s voice is a falsetto bray, his elongated teeth flat-out scary. After an ineptly staged chase, the Batmobile ends up under the Wall Street bull statue, its testicles dangling over Brand’s face. “Drunk again, Arthur,” says a cop—a line that worked better in the original, when Arthur was behind the wheel. (Back then, DWIs could be passed off as high jinks.) The desperate editing, the falsetto, the neutered gag—those bull balls read like Brand’s symbolic castration.

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