This is the forest primeval. Snow-covered woods, frozen lakes, and wild beasts. In the heart of the wilderness sits an ancient log cabin with a peaked roof, where lives a young woman and her father, both dressed head-to-toe in animal skins. The only light in the snug little hut, the only power at all for miles around, comes from the fireplace.
But there's something sinister about this primitive, almost mythical scene. Evenings, the father tutors his daughter in foreign languages and logistics, and puts her through drills to memorize the details of a prefab identity. She's been trained to defend herself viciously. On one of her subsistence-hunting outings, after she's brought down an elk with her bow and arrow and is busily field dressing it in the snow, he sneaks up and warns her that if this were the real world she'd already be dead. The cabin-in-the-pines existence, seemingly a survivalist's paradise, is in reality a hideout for spies — spies like Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) and Erik (Eric Bana).
So begins one of the most captivating movies of the season. As conceived by director Joe Wright and writers Seth Lochhead and David Farr, Hanna builds its teenage-gothic enchanted cottage in the same international-spy subdivision as the Bourne films, The American, The Adjustment Bureau, etc., and instantly makes the majority of its neighbors look silly and hopelessly out of date.
Hanna, of course, was not put on this earth to be a wood-gathering peasant. The routinely preposterous plot follows familiar experiment-gone-wrong, mistaken-identity, who-am-I-really conventions we've seen in countless espionage potboilers. What makes the scenario seem so unique and fresh is the way Wright tells the tale. That, and Ms. Ronan's face, a beguiling mask of savage innocence.
Hot on Hanna's trail is a harpy-ish CIA agent named Marissa (Cate Blanchett with a deep-fried Southern accent), who may or may not be the young secret agent's "mother." It's a prime requisite these days for spies to have worrisome parental issues, and everything Hanna does as she ankles from her forest home (shot in Finland) to Morocco to Spain to Germany becomes a function of her search for connectedness.
Thus, when she latches onto an oblivious British family vacationing in North Africa, she does her best to relate to Sophie, their adolescent daughter (Jessica Barden, startlingly good). After all, that's what people are supposed to do. Living in the woods, Hanna has missed out on a whole list of things ordinary teen girls worry about, like TV, party dresses, and boys. But we needn't fret about her being taken advantage of against her will — anyone who gets too close gets killed.
The fairytale aspect of Hanna's quest encompasses not only her "dad" and "mom," but a cadre of malevolent dwarfs and goblins including decadent hit man Isaacs (Tom Hollander), who goes around whistling like Peter Lorre in M, and various assassins and loony caretakers. At times, filmmaker Wright (The Soloist, Atonement, Pride and Prejudice) seems to have come under the spell of classic German cinematic expressionism. Hanna and Erik's cottage and the decrepit Berlin theme park, especially, might have sprung directly from Fritz Lang's 1920s UFA studio. Is it the Babelsberg effect? Put those fanciful, forbidding visuals together with the Chemical Brothers musical score plus a schpritz of Tom Tykwer — Run Hanna Run? — and we're almost ready to forgive the flimsiness of the Blanchett and Bana characters.
Saoirse Ronan, at age seventeen, has already produced a number of striking performances in such films as Wright's Atonement, The Lovely Bones, and The Way Back, all with the common denominator of victimhood. Despite its genre conventionality, her Hanna may be the most interesting of the bunch, a mixed-up kid searching for her soul, or in her case the possibility of a soul. It's Hanna's life, so let her live it her way. If you try to stop her she'll break your nose.