Gilbey on Film: laugh till you drop

Joe Wright's <em>Hanna</em> draws on a rich vein of assassin comedies.

There is so much to relish Joe Wright's film Hanna, which is part comic thriller, part fairy tale and part irresistible "What If?" (as in: "What if Rainer Werner Fassbinder had designed a big-budget Hollywood action movie?").

The movie is named after its teenage heroine (Saoirse Ronan), who has been raised as a single-minded killer by her father (Eric Bana) in a remote snowy wilderness. With her tentative relationship to the modern world, and her ruthlessness and near-immortality, she's like the Terminator crossed with Nell.

Dad is a former special agent who went rogue after the killing of Hanna's mother; father and daughter have spent the intervening years preparing for their only mission -- to kill the special agent (Cate Blanchett) responsible for the murder. The picture begins with real snow and real swans, but by the end we have seen a kitsch alpine nightclub routine in a Berlin bar, and the characters are stalking one another through an artificial landscape where giant plastic swan boats bob on the water and a cottage is adorned with fake snow.

The effect is to seal the film and its violence inside a fairy-tale world. (Presumably this is what has allowed a 12A-certificate to be attached to a movie in which people are shot in the head or stabbed in the neck with with pens.)

Blanchett is a treat as the wicked queen of the story. In the flashbacks, she looks like she could have walked straight out of Fassbinder's 1979 terrorist thriller The Third Generation. In the present-day scenes, she wears a lipstick-slashed smile to rival Jack Nicholson's in Batman. She bends her body at sharp angles as she ascends a set of steel steps, like a beautiful robot designed with the sole purpose of negotiating staircases in an elegant fashion.

Ronan, who had a pivotal role in Wright's film of Ian McEwan's Atonement, brings lightness to a part that could have come across as an automaton. The Chemical Brothers' urgent, aggressive score pushes the action forwards, and even dovetails nicely with some of the more industrial production design: there's a long sequence set in a version of CIA headquarters which, with its vast cylindrical concrete tunnels and ducts, could pass for a hot new club on Berlin's gay scene.

Perhaps Tom Hollander, channeling the spirit of gay hit-men Mr Wint and Mr Kidd from Diamonds Are Forever, would be a regular there, along with his neo-Nazi sidekicks/concubines. (That's another great thing about Hanna: where else could you expect to find itsy-bitsy Hollander trading blows with the strapping Eric Bana, the sensitive action hero from The Hulk and Munich?)

For all its glorious oddball elements, Hanna fits into a recognisable cinematic tradition. It's no surprise that cinema has been obsessed with the mythical figure of the solitary assassin as far back as Alan Ladd in the 1942 noir thriller This Gun For Hire; the combination of the romance of the loner, and the inbuilt guarantee of violence, is irresistible. What's unusual is how readily the subject lends itself to comedy. It's not always intentional -- you need only look at last year's preposterous and pretentious thriller The American to see how easily an assassin's story can be undermined by its own solemnity.

But there is strong potential for a delicate comedy of manners in the tension between the monastic demeanour of the assassin, and the possibility that it may be impinged upon by the messy business of life and love. Prizzi's Honour (1985) exploited it beautifully, framing the blossoming romance of two killers (Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner) as a kind of slowed-down screwball; the pace is deliciously, extravagantly unhurried but the script would have tickled Preston Sturges.

Wild Target (the 1993 Pierre Salvadori original, rather than the recent British remake) took similar material into the realms of black farce. Also notable are Jim Jarmusch's excursions into the deadpan assassin comedy -- Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) and The Limits of Control (2009), by which time the joke had worn thin, at least in that director's hands.

Grosse Pointe Blank (1997) took a more broadly humorous approach. Here, the assassin's reticence is used as a means of confronting the prevailing concern of post-Fever Pitch New Man comedy: commitment issues. If the comic violence in that picture owed something to Tarantino, Martin McDonagh's In Bruges (2007) felt authentically scabrous and salty in both word and deed.

The best assassin comedy, as well as one of my favourite films of the 1990s, has to be The Long Kiss Goodnight (1997) starring Geena Davis as a mild-mannered housewife whose forgotten past as a professional killer returns not so much to haunt her as to fire automatic weapons and hurl grenades at her. There's great relish in the way the director Renny Harlin depicts Davis's shift from Doris Day to Lotte Lenya's Rosa Klebb . And the picture functions neatly as a tangy satire on family life. Its suggestions that the core of the family unit might be fractured -- yes, your mother could be trying to conceal her bloodlust with cookies and PTA meetings -- are not a million miles away from The Stepfather or Serial Mom.

It's a bristling comedy, an absurdly exciting thriller and a more compelling housewives' wish-fulfilment fantasy than Shirley Valentine or Calendar Girls.

Hanna opens on Friday. Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear