Bechdel Test Canon: Hanna
Y’all, I had fun thinking through Hanna. I understand why Joe Wright’s action thriller about a teenage girl (Saoirse Ronan) trained as an assassin by her father Erik (Eric Bana) who wants to play tag with CIA operative Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett) wasn’t more warmly received—yet I still think it's underrated. Some people may have found the Chemical Brothers’ block-rocking score to be too obvious. It was, but it also was lock-in-step with the sound department and film editor Paul Tothill’s frenetic design. This is particularly evident during the gorgeously excessive action sequences, which ramp up the tension and catharsis in a calculated yet totally rewarding fashion.
I bring up the Chemical Brothers’ score to address a larger concern, which is how effectively the film handles the global scale of its characters’ professional and lived experiences and what this may suggest about a variety of racial and ethnic tensions bubbling under the surface. The protagonist’s and antagonist’s missions begin in Finland and Washington D.C. and continue through parts of Morocco, Spain, and Germany. Hanna has a British director, an Irish lead, two Australian principles, and British supporting players. England also has a rich, difficult history as a colonizer and as a site of immigration, particularly for Caribbean, Jamaican, South Asian, South African, and Middle Eastern populations. This is reflected in a number of places, including much of its contemporary literature, particularly the work of Zadie Smith, Patrick Neate, and Hanif Kureishi.
These exchanges also inform English citizens’ innovations in dance music, which is where Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons’ contribution to Hanna becomes relevant. Disco’s militant four-on-the-floor rhythmic patterns were a foundation on which to layer reggae’s rhythmic pulse, soul divas’ arias, dub’s echo, funk and hip hop’s fat bass lines, sampled Bollywood scores, repurposed psychedelia, and techno’s compositional explorations with the Phrygian scale, a modal sequence distinguished by an augmented step between the second and third degrees that is often associated with Middle Eastern musical idioms. It may scan as utopian on paper or at a rave, but it certainly doesn’t sound that way when used to score an international game of cat and mouse.
I think this plays directly into Hanna’s racial and gender politics. A number of critics, like Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, contextualized the film as part of a wave of releases about young female lethal weapons with daddy issues. BUST contributor Mary S. noted a similar trend, and pointed out the problematic implications of inserting another white girl into a revisionist fairy tale, having to face off with an ice queen matriarch, and demonstrating a latent homophobia that might inform the ambiguous characterization of Weigler’s peroxide-domed, cabaret-patronizing accomplice Issacs (Tom Hollander).
The privileging of white girlhood is rampant in fables, as well as their revisions. Hanna is linked to Ellen Page’s turn as Little Red Riding Hoodie in Hard Candy and Catherine Hardwicke’s take on Red Riding Hood, as well as white female musicians’ involvement in these retellings, whether it be Fever Ray’s contribution to Red Riding Hood’s soundtrack or the influence of Disney musicals on St. Vincent’s fractured, feminist fairy tales. The paucity of representations of girls of color in this narrative tradition inspires texts like The Princess and the Frog to become sites of contention and Mulan to be so protectively cherished. We still filter representations of girlhood through fairy tale characters and dolls, and so privilege conventional white feminine beauty in their constructions.
Hanna makes a contribution to this canon we’re creating and critiquing in two ways. One is how the film gets at the inherent constructedness of white normative girlhood and the other is Hanna’s complicated encounters with homosociality. In both regards, I side most with This Recording contributor Elisabeth Donnelly’s assessment of the film. Hanna was built in a lab. This is evident in her quick reflexes, her mastery of multiple languages, her stoicism, her drive, and her complete disconnect from “typical” teen girl behavior. It may also toy with Anita Harris’ can-do girl, a high achiever who is shaped by and thus internalizes society’s patriarchal, binaristic expectations of how “good” girls are supposed to behave.
This is played for comedy when Hanna meets Sophie (scene-stealer Jessica Barden), who is caravanning through the desert with her hippie parents. The precocious, whip-smart mallrat guilelessly insists upon establishing a friendship, in part out of fascination for Hanna’s alien ignorance toward pop culture, flirting, fashion, and gossip as well as out of a general concern for her well-being. Sophie doesn’t know the half of what Hanna’s going through and is only part of her life for a brief period. But she also gathers that whatever her friend is going through must be considerable but never asks questions or passes judgment. I agree with Donnelly—in the sequel, they share billing.
We learn late in the film that Hanna’s father helped recruit pregnant women from abortion clinics so that the CIA could use their fetuses’ DNA to create emotionally impenetrable children with super-human strength. The project was killed, along with the women and children. Erik fled with baby Hanna and her birth mother, Johanna (Vicky Krieps), who was shot down by Weigler during their escape. Thus it could be argued that both women are Hanna’s mother. But given the final showdown between wicked stepmother and rebellious stepdaughter in Berlin’s Spreepark (an abandoned carnival that is also featured prominently in filmmaker Bruce LaBruce's queer coming-of-age zombie film Otto), I think Hanna has more of a bond with Weigler. Both share a respect for marks(wo)manship. The resulting matricide that concludes Hanna reminds me of Coraline and the psychic processes by which the titular protagonist attempts to free herself from other mother’s clutches. Even though there are misogynistic undercurrents to the fatal gunshot wound Hanna delivers, Weigler’s death suggests irresolution. Weigler will never die because she lives on in Hanna, and her story will be retold and revised just like the fables women and girls pass on to one another.
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