Alice Up The Rabbit’s Hole
by James Killough
I have a good friend who sits on the opposite end of the filmmaking process from me. I simmer up to my neck with scalding brimstone in the deepest malebolge of development hell, while he, as the owner of an entertainment advertising firm, strums a harp strung with cash in marketing heaven, where desperate studios heap clouds of money in an attempt to polish their turds and dupe the public. This sensible friend once observed, “Nobody ever sets out to make a shitty film.” And yet so many are made.
With regard to Joe Wright’s Hanna, I wholeheartedly agree with Rex Reed’s review in the New York Observer. It’s a “pretentious mess,” which I suppose isn’t so surprising given who made it. I’ll add my own observations to Reed’s from a more technical point of view in a bit, but not without taking this occasion to name drop and somehow tie Hanna into my own experience.
I’ve met Joe Wright on a few occasions. The first time we partied semi-hard at a get-together British fashion designer Alice Temperley and her husband threw for him in their flat above their store in Notting Hill after Joe wrapped Atonement, which is not to say it was the film’s wrap party. It was too intimate for that. We were all off our faces on various intoxicants, so it’s hard to judge someone by that experience alone. Joe was bouncy and nice enough, with a typical case of director’s hyper-kinetic ADHD.
The most memorable portion of the evening was a spat between my creative partner, Rain Li, and Joe’s fiancée at the time, actress Rosamund Pike. Rain was very young, she had just shot Gus van Sant’s Paranoid Park, she’s Chinese, she’s a woman, and yet she was already a full-fledged director of photography. In our business, this is as unusual as the super-girl Hanna herself in Wright’s new film; DPs are usually men, and at that level substantially older than twenty-four.
Rosamund was understandably both skeptical and impressed by Rain. She was also reclining on a couch in the proper sense of the word couch, as in psychiatrist’s couch, meaning “an article of furniture with a headrest at one end,” not a sofa. Together with her upper class “received pronunciation” accent, and a glass of champagne in one hand, Rosamund’s skeptical grilling didn’t go over well with Rain, a self-described “pikey,” which doesn’t mean she was a follower of Rosamund Pike’s. Pikey is a very non-PC word for low-class gypsy scum, like the character played by Brad Pitt in Snatch. While this is Rain’s way of scrubbing off her intense innate glamour — she isn’t really in the least bit pikey — she is still a fierce Beijing alley cat with a faux-cockney accent and the survival instincts of La Femme Nikita.
“Are you really a DP?” asked the reclining Rosamund. As her ad hoc publicist, I didn’t get a chance to rattle off Rain’s filmography before Rain karate chopped Rosamund with a single facial expression: she looked at me and then looked heavenward.
Time stopped. Had this been broad comedy, you would have heard the sound of glass shattering, a needle screeching across a record. Rosamund growled, “Did you just raise your eyes at me?”
“No,” Rain shot back. Every Chinese alley cat knows that when you’re backed into a corner, deny everything and scratch like hell.
“You did! You just raised your eyes at me!” Rosamund insisted, her voice raising proportionately to her indignation.
I tried to cool the situation down: “It’s just that she doesn’t like to be treated as such an oddity…” I didn’t get very far. Rosamund looked at me like an entrée she hadn’t ordered in a greasy spoon diner.
“I don’t care. She didn’t need to raise her eyes at me!” A catfight ensued, fur flew. Rosamund and Rain were quickly separated into different rooms by their respective posses. Boyfriend Joe was completely oblivious; I remember he gave a toast standing on the table at some point soon after the spat. I staggered off into the night shortly thereafter; too much MDMA mixed with red wine always makes me woozy and a tad gassy.
The next time I ran into Joe was at a sound editing facility in Soho. We were both mixing our respective films. Atonement went on to huge critical acclaim and a slew of Oscar nominations, while my Losing Her was installed at the Tate Museum; in other words, he was very much the star in that dark padded warren that post houses are, whereas I was the poor artist for whom everyone was doing favors. My editors kept rotating shifts on Atonement and then coming back to my film with rapturous expressions over what they’d just seen of Wright’s work. Joe and I exchanged hellos and pleasantries a few times, but he was very much the white rabbit, always late for an important date.
It’s clear from Hanna that both Joe and I put a lot of importance in sound design. There are three or four places in his movie where the sound mix is remarkably startling and trippy; it leaps to the foreground rather than just supporting the image.
And then there is that bizarre score by the Chemical Brothers, which should be bizarre because it’s by the Chemical Brothers, and I say that as a massive fan. At the risk of seeming like I dance in Joe Wright’s shadow, I tried to get them to do the music for my film Hatter back when we were first getting it going in 2003, but their manager declined on the grounds they weren’t ready for a film and one of them was having a baby, which is manager-speak for “I’ve read the first ten pages, and there are too many chemicals and too much of the wrong kind of sex even for the Chemical Brothers.”
Joe Wright is clearly inspired by his collaboration with the CBs. In a delirious escape sequence in the first act, Saoirse Ronan as Hanna/Alice flees the red queen’s minions in an underground maze of what looks like enormous shark’s gills, which literally strobe in sync to the thudding electronica, like a rave circa 1996. It almost triggered a sense-memory flashback and made me do a cartwheel like I did when I saw the CBs at Coachella in 2001. Then, to belabor what is the first of many ham-fisted fairytale tropes, Hanna/Alice pokes her head out from a hole in the middle of the desert and stumbles into the surreal real world of nefarious red queens and platinum blond gay white knights.
As Dorothy Parker once said of Katherine Hepburn’s performance, Saoirse Ronan “runs the gamut of emotions from A to B” in Hanna. This is understandable; Hanna has been bred not to have pity or fear. Ms. Ronan (I can’t imagine pronouncing her first name, so I won’t type it) is as impassive throughout as a Pre-Raphealite angel, the models for whom were surely her genetic ancestors. We have seen this character before, the superhuman chick in distress, in movies like La Femme Nikita, Run, Lola, Run, and The Fifth Element. Indeed, Luc Besson is obsessed with this kind of girl, the vulnerable beauty devoid of bothersome mercurial female foibles, who kicks ass like a dude.
Cate Blanchett is as campy as the red queen desperate for Hanna’s head as Faye Dunaway would be doing a mash-up of Mommie Dearest and The Eyes of Laura Mars. In case you don’t get who she is meant to represent, she even has scarlet hair, and brushes her teeth until they bleed.
One thing that didn’t escape me is a sequence in the beginning when Hanna breaks the neck of a woman acting as a decoy for Cate Blanchett’s character. She looks so much like Wright’s ex Rosamund Pike I thought it was Rosamund, enough to check the credits afterwards. Other than paintballing your ex from the back of a convertible your friend is driving slowly past your ex’s house, and I don’t admit to ever doing that, snapping the bitch’s head two hundred and seventy degrees in a major motion picture is damned classy. Bravo.
When I was coming out of the cinema, I heard two young cinephiles saying, “Well, it certainly was stylish.” I felt like saying, No, it was stylized. And there is a difference. Won Kar Wai is stylish; that is true couture filmmaking. Hanna is a posh kid with enough money and clout to buy brand luxury goods for the sake of the label and thinking it looks smashing. It suddenly made perfect sense to me that I first met Joe at Alice Temperley’s, who isn’t really a designer so much as she makes variations on the same pleasant, expensive lacey frock. Temperley is that conundrum in the fashion business: the socially well-connected dressmaker who does enough business not to be ignored, but whom nobody really wants to consider a designer; it would diminish those who really are.
Wright loves his single-take action sequences. The amount of production choreography that must go into one of these is enough to give you a headache thinking about how it’s done. I am referring specifically to the U-Bahn sequence in Berlin when Eric Bana takes out five or six CIA agents. Wright would have been better off fixating less on getting the whole scene in a single take and more on making the fighting exciting and original even if it meant cutting it up.
The biggest drawback to Hanna is the script. I have liked everything Joe Wright has chosen up until now, but this was a total misfire, as if he’s humoring the studios too far. One should always humor the people who are putting enough money in your film to build a large hotel, but there are limits to how dunderheaded the blueprint for that structure should be. At the end of the first act I was muttering to myself, This had better go somewhere amazing, but it doesn’t. To make the story even more dunderheaded, there is this peculiar British neo-hippy family that acts as a conveyance for Hanna’s improbable exodus out of the desert to Berlin, which, together with the borderline offensive gay assassin in white hot pants, seems to be there merely as comic relief. There is nothing remotely funny about them or their dialogue.
At the end of the day, that is probably why Joe and I never became friends, despite partying together and working in close quarters with the same technicians: we don’t share the same sense of humor, sensibilities or sense of style. Even if this isn’t his second outing, Hanna is very much a sophomoric film, which just goes to show that you end up paying your dues one way or the other, whether it’s in the privacy of eternal development hell or in public. Joe will no doubt go on to dazzle us in the future, it just won’t be with noisy, hackneyed cack like this.