James Worsdale hasn’t been able to so shamelessly dabble in postmodern-gender musings in years and he kind of maybe definitely loves it.
I open this review with a presumably cringe-inducing question to the reader, is there a difference between “a strong female character” and “a strong character who happens to be female”? An admittedly antifeminist distinction to draw and work around, I know. And a distinction that still leaves a serious representational deficit in both categories. But I promise I won’t leave it at that. Is there a way to create a character that seems to inhabit a space more within the latter of those categories, but through learning from those in the former, subverts the very logic that that question posits itself in and around? And through introducing such a character into this binary framework, who adapts to it while muddling it, isn’t that introducing a character that subverts and undermines the very logic of patriarchy? That logic that feminism seeks to draw attention to and resist?
From a recent Canonball-induced craving for a reinterpretation of and greater appreciation for strong female characters, alongside increasing evidence of the feminist messaging and framework this film was based in and around, I excitedly went to see Hanna this past weekend (and fortunately was one of many who chose to do so) and was in awe of how well it fulfilled the need for feminist reclamations in both the action and fairytale genres, artfully choreographed a tale of determination despite violent chaos and crushing disillusionment, and created a desexualized, brilliant and focused heroine.
A brief plot synopsis for the unaware (and plot spoilers intentionally kept to a minimum): Hanna (Saoirse Ronan…a force of nature this young lady) is a teenage girl living with her father, Erik (Eric Bana) in the woods, undergoing physically and intellectually intensive training for an ambiguous purpose. You quickly gather that Hanna is a genius, transitioning flawlessly in conversation with her father from English to German to Spanish so on and so forth, and has learned all she knows from her father’s rigorous teachings with the ultimate intention and interest of survival. Adapt or die. She informs her father that she is ready for life on the outside, what that entails is unknown at this point.
Erik shows Hanna a switch to flip and lets her know that when she does, they will come and find them, and he and Hanna’s plan will commence. You hear the details of their plan as Erik grills Hanna on her back story and route to their end destination, which will bring them together at a recreated home from one of Grimm’s fairytales. Declaring herself ready, she flips the switch and the race begins. Erik flees, according to plan, and a team of soldiers arrives at the home in the woods to seize him. You gather from back story at this point that Erik is a rogue agent of sorts and he and Hanna were in hiding from Marissa Weigler (a cartoonishly villainous and ginger-haired Cate Blanchett). Holding Hanna in an interrogation cell, she lets the people she’s speaking with know that she needs to speak with
Unsure of what she will do, they send in an impersonator, on whom Hanna demonstrates her strength and agility in an act of vengeance. Escaping the unit she takes her and her father’s plan to the next level and shows Weigler just how little she can afford to underestimate her. Hanna turns out to be in Morocco, where she befriends a girl (the first she’s seen since her mother’s death when she was a baby) and her family who react to her eccentricity welcomingly. The differences in viewpoints and expectations also provide for some moments of humor.
Here the narrative reaches a very interesting point in that Hanna’s made sense of existence on the outside through her father’s teachings, largely through his reciting fairytales to her, though with the ubiquitous message of survival as the priority. In this sense, her interactions with this family and her suddent presence in this conventional world reminded me of another fairytale adaptation, Enchanted. Though, I assure you, in this fairytale, Hanna does not end up with McDreamy. Hanna gathers from this family real feelings of friendship, sisterhood, and family outside of the narrative she had built her life in and around. This paralleled with Wiegler’s relentless hunt, as well as some harsh realizations that I won’t reveal, unravels the thread of Hanna’s fairytale narrative and shatters her illusion. Though despite this inevitable disappointment, Hanna perseveres, always remembering to prioritize survival above any lie.
Lindsay’s question still remains surrounding the perceived necessity for masculinization and militarization of female heroines to be ordained into the canon of “strong female characters.” But I went into this movie already thinking that Hanna was a kick-ass character for reasons other than kicking-ass. Hanna is “not just an avatar for an idea” but is presented with enough nuance and complexity that her presence transcends the phallogocentrism and the conflating of strength with masculinity. Once she enters the sphere of “the outside” her femininity is omnipresent and appreciated, though it does not hold her back from asserting herself and it does not pin her down in interpreting herself. She comes from a place where her gender does not define her, but her survival does.
When she enters the outside, however, her existence as a woman is read by those surrounding her as presumably weaker and submissive (particularly in an interaction with a young Spaniard that is at times romantic but ultimately hysterical and empowering) but she utilizes the same survival mechanisms she learned from her father to do just that, to survive. She doesn’t use her femininity, she barely even considers it. She is here to survive, her survival is her existence. This feminist, dare I say, post-female interpretation of herself was the intention of director Joe Wright, saying, “I think the character exists outside of gender, in the same way that perhaps an angel does; and partly because I didn’t want her to exist within the kind of binary-opposition thinking. Her personality as a female is not reliant on there being a male.” So is Hanna a post-female feminist heroine? You will have to go see and decide for yourself. But as I said, regardless of where you categorize her, Hanna will survive, despite just missing your heart.