The Black-Ops Fairy Tale

Saoirse Ronan in Hanna.Photo: Alex Bailey/Courtesy of Focus Features

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.

This Arthur has mommy rather than daddy issues. His Jeeves, played in ’81 by the minimalist master John Gielgud, is now a frowning Helen Mirren, who gazes on Brand with a disgust I found too credible to be funny. Jennifer Garner—so charming in 13 Going on 30—abases herself as Arthur’s brittle, driven fiancée, while Greta Gerwig has her distinctive blurty rhythms metronomically cropped. When banter this bad is played this fast, it’s like souls writhing helplessly in limbo.

God, I miss Dudley Moore. He was Arthur, the cherub who smuggled tall beauties into his dressing room, who could never keep up with his satanic father figure Peter Cook as either wit or alcoholic and signaled as much with his sad eyes. Better Dudley, Liza, and the miserable Arthur 2: On the Rocks than this monstrosity.

There are recognizable human forms in the first section of Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, but nothing in the way of individuals. It’s 1845 (as a quaintly embroidered title card reveals), and a wagon train is making its slow way west on the Oregon Trail. You hear not voices but the snorting of horses, the squeaking of wheels, the clanking of pans … birds … insects … the wind in the dry grass. Over the next half-hour, the characters emerge, and because their faces have been withheld for so long you might start to get excited when you figure out who’s who. You might even think, “These people are so real.” It’s an impressive piece of arthouse flimflam.

No, the con isn’t conscious—I don’t think Reichardt believes she’s anything but a visionary. Meek’s Cutoff is being widely celebrated as a unique female perspective on American white-male expansionism, and it certainly aims to be. Michelle Williams, star of Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, crosses her arms and stares out from under her bonnet in obvious disapproval at the bushy blowhard Buffalo Bill wannabe Meek, who I thought was Dennis Quaid but turned out to be Bruce Greenwood. He gets them allegorically lost, whereupon they encounter a lone Cayuse Native American (Ron Rondeaux), whom they allegorically capture and beat and tie up while Williams watches silently. You know she’s going to be the one to bring him food and water and then intervene to try to keep him from harm—but this is the kind of movie in which there are long, arty stretches between clichés.

For all its indirection, Meek’s Cutoff is an utterly conventional film. But it’s worth asking whether Reichardt’s drowsy rhythms, stripped-down scenario, and female vantage (which extends to her choice of a square, constricted frame instead of one more Pana-visual) add up to something illuminating. And here’s where she earns at least some of those plaudits she’s been getting. With the help of Leslie Shatz’s sound design and Chris Blauvelt’s inspired use of available light (or lack thereof), the settlers’ alienation from the natural landscape stays with you long after the movie ends. American mythologists like to talk about the sturdy “pioneer spirit,” but Reichardt’s westward-ho is a world of confusion, geographical and moral, a dislocation beyond the remedy of water or Bibles.

Directed by Joe Wright.
Focus Features. PG-13.

The Conspirator
Directed by Robert Redford.
The American Film Company/Roadside Attractions. PG-13.

Directed by Jason Winer.
Warner Bros. PG-13.

Meek’s Cutoff
Directed by Kelly Reichardt.
Oscilloscope Laboratories. PG.


The Black-Ops Fairy Tale