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.

JESSICA NELSON/MOMENT OPEN
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The fisher bird that unites levity with strength

We think the planet's fish are rightfully ours. But the brown pelican is known to snatch fish from other birds in mid-air.

If ever there was a time when I was unaccountably happy, it was the day I first saw the Pacific. I had just started working at an office near San Jose and, three days in to my first week, a colleague drove me south and west on a back road that seemed to run for hours through dense stands of Douglas fir and redwood, not stopping till we were just shy of the coast, the firs giving way to wind-sculpted specimens of California cypress and Monterey pine.

Here we parked and walked the rest of the way, coming over a rise and finally gazing out over the water. The Pacific. The idea of it had been part of my mental furniture since childhood, though I didn’t really know why, and what I saw both confirmed and confounded the image I had of that great ocean. But the thing that struck me most, the true source of my unaccountable happiness, was a long flight of brown pelicans drifting along the waterline, just ten yards from the shore, more elegant than I could have imagined from having seen pictures and captive specimens in zoos. This is not surprising, as what makes the brown pelican so elegant is how it moves, whether diving from astonishing heights in pursuit of fish or, as on this first encounter, hastening slowly along a beach in groups of thirty or forty, head back, wings tipped up slightly, with an air of ease that would give the term “laid back” a whole new definition.

The brown pelican: it’s a slightly misleading name, as the predominant colour varies from cocoa-brown to near-grey, while the breast is white and the head is brushed with a pale citrus tone, rather like the gannet, to which it is related. The birds breed on rocky islands off the Central American coast and travel north to hunt. In recent years, concern has been voiced for the species’ long-term safety: first, because of an observable thinning of the eggs, probably caused by pesticides, and second because, as recently as 2014, there was an alarming and inexplicable drop in the birthrate, which some observers attributed to huge fish-kills caused by Fukushima.

On an everyday level, though, pelicans, like cormorants and other coastal dwellers, have to be protected from those among the human population who think that all the fish in the ocean are, by some God-given right, unaccountably ours.

But none of this was in my mind that day, as I stood on that white beach and watched as flight after flight of pelicans sailed by. Out over the water, the sun sparkled yet the sea was almost still, in some places, so the bodies of the passing birds reflected in the water whenever they dipped low in their flight. What did come to mind was a phrase from Marianne Moore’s poem about another member of the Pelecaniformes family – the “frigate pelican”, or frigate bird, which she describes as “uniting levity with strength”. It’s as good a description of grace as I know.

Yet grace takes many forms, from the absolute economy with which an old tango dancer clothes her unquenched passion at a Buenos Aires milonga to Jürgen Schult’s world-record discus throw at Neubrandenburg in 1986, and we have to learn from birds such
as the pelican what we mean by “levity”, and “strength”.

How else to do that, other than by closely observing how the natural world really operates, rather than how we think it does? Later, in her poem about the frigate bird (an accomplished flier and an even more accomplished thief, known to pluck fish from another bird’s grasp in mid-air), Moore extends that notion of levity: “Festina lente. Be gay/civilly? How so?” and adds a quote from the Bhagavadgita that, to my mind, gets to the heart of the matter: “If I do well I am blessed/whether any bless me or not . . .” The lesson we learn from the noble order of Pelecaniformes is exactly this: of the many prizes we may try for, grace transcends all.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times