"Fairy tales are more than true," G.K. Chesterton wrote; "not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten."
At age 16, Hanna still reads fairy tales. A collection of them is the only book she owns, it seems, in her cold, isolated world—the only bit of art in this austere place. She leafs through the stories, page by page, as she keep close the small pictures she has of her mother, the only thing left of her. The precious minutes skitter by until sleep comes, and morning, and another day of work designed to make her stronger, sharper, deadlier.
Hanna is training to be an assassin.
It's been so ever since birth. Raised by her father near the Arctic Circle, she and he whittle away their days sparring and hunting. She knows at least five languages and probably more. She can skewer a caribou with a homemade arrow. At night, her father reads to her out of textbooks and encyclopedias—the history of Morocco, the fate of the first cosmonaut, the mechanics of electricity—to prepare her for the day when she leaves this place and takes her deadly skills to the wider world, fulfilling the purpose for which she was raised: to survive, to kill.
But Hanna senses that her training is incomplete. "What does music feel like?" she asks her father. Her father tells her. Or, more precisely, he instructs her from a reference book, relaying information about the collection of pitches and sounds gathered to foster emotion and pleasure. But Hanna isn't satisfied. She wants to hear music, feel it for herself.
But she'll have to leave her home, her father, this womb-like forest and walk into the wilds of civilization for that. And she does eventually, as something of a Red Riding Hood. In leaving, she knows she'll face danger like she's never known—a wolf dressed not as a grandmother, but a government agent named Marissa, armed with perfect teeth and designer shoes and hungry, deadly eyes.
"She won't stop until you're dead," Erik warns her. "Or she is."
Hanna's father taught the girl everything he could—from gutting a deer to snapping a man's neck. But perhaps it will be Hanna's attachment to her fairy tales that will win the day in the end … in a world fraught with dragons.
Hanna is indeed a fairy tale in some respects, featuring a plucky child trying to overcome the brutal, bizarre world she's been thrown into against her will. It's also a strangely affecting coming-of-age story. Hanna may be a budding assassin and her father's a spy on the lam, but the love they share feels real and touching. As the father of a 17-year-old daughter myself, I keenly felt Erik's reluctance to let his daughter leave the forest, even when she insists—and shows—that she's ready. She's crossing the threshold into adulthood, and even though parents train their children from birth to do just that, it doesn't make it any easier to let go. And we clearly see the tenderness the roughhewn Erik demonstrates in finally allowing her to leave.
When Hanna encounters the rest of our world, it's revealing to see her experience it as new and fresh … the beauty of music, of dance, of friendship, of a first (almost) kiss. Some of these encounters don't manifest themselves positively in the film, but to see and feel the joy she discovers in living—relishing what most of us take for granted—is one of the movie's little gifts.
[Spoiler Warning] While we can't in any way excuse the bloodshed caused by Hanna and her father, context is important here. Hanna is a genetically enhanced child, saved from being aborted after being designed as a "perfect soldier," genetically less prone to feel fear or compassion. She was one of several babies so engineered—babies killed by Marissa when the project was cancelled. Erik flees the agency, in part, to save Hanna from the same fate, and all his harsh tutelage is primarily about survival: As the last loose thread of the project, Hanna is to be hunted and killed. Hanna is not Erik's biological daughter, but that doesn't matter a whit to him (a nod to adoption), who eventually sacrifices his life for his little girl.
Hanna travels across several countries with a British family, and the family's mother tells Hanna that trips to the countryside "bring us closer to God." But she says she doesn't mean it in a monotheistic sense: She's talking about "Buddha, Krishna, the god within."
Hanna's grandmother puts down what appears to be a Bible while talking with Marissa, shortly before Marissa kills her. A cross hangs on the wall of what is, for a time, a safe haven. We see graffiti that reads, "One nation under CCTV."
The British family that Hanna joins includes two kids: Sophie, a girl about Hanna's age, and Miles, a boy several years younger. Sophie wears revealing clothing (from midriff-baring tops to bikinis) and encourages Hanna to sneak out with a couple of boys. (Then, when Hanna agrees to do so, Sophie calls her a "ho.") Sophie says she wouldn't mind being a lesbian—as long as she could be a pretty Hollywood lesbian who might eventually marry a guy. (And thanks to that comment, some moviegoers may interpret Hanna and Sophie sleeping side by side and Hanna planting a tender kiss on Sophie's cheek as more than a tender moment between friends.)
When Hanna and Sophie sneak out with the boys, Sophie kisses her date. Hanna asks her guy if he's going to kiss her. But when their lips are about to touch, she throws him to the ground and puts him in a stranglehold. "I'm going to go now," Hanna says, very sweetly. "It was nice."
Marissa hires a hit man who runs a club catering to extreme sexual tastes. When Marissa comes in, he's watching a hermaphrodite rehearse a striptease—bare breasts covered with an arm or hands.
Sophie discusses breast augmentation surgery. Sophie's mother talks about how a female's lips are, through makeup, made to resemble her sexual anatomy.
Almost all of Hanna's main characters are killers. While Hanna is trained, in a sense, simply to defend herself, her father believes that the best defense is a good offense. So she kills without mercy. Taken into custody by government agents, she offs two soldiers in the process. Another four meet their end at her hands when she escapes. An example: Hanna tightly hugs an unsuspecting agent before reaching for her head and snapping her neck. When she finally breaks into the wider world, she continues her rampage, snuffing someone out with a slice to the jugular, wounding someone else with an arrow to the gut.
Hanna engages several folks in nonlethal fistfights. Her training is bruising, visceral and chaotic. We see her kill and dress a caribou. And when dispatching wounded prey, she points a gun to their heads and pulls the trigger (the barrel pointed at the camera). Blood sometimes spatters Hanna's face and clothes.
Erik also kills several people, using knives, guns and, in one instance, a pipe (which he stabs through a man's chest). The bloodied corpse of one of his victims, a policeman, is fished out of the sea. He exchanges fire with Marissa.
Marissa favors the relative antiseptic dispatch of a handgun, using it frequently and without emotion. In flashback we see that she was the one who gunned down Hanna's mother, and she kills nearly everyone Hanna meets in her travels.
The hired hit man and his cronies seem to relish their jobs. The hit man ties up and apparently tortures a hotel manager (his face is bloodied and swollen) before stabbing the guy in the heart with a pen. He ties up a man upside-down and shoots him full of arrows. We don't explicitly see him do it, but we do see the hit man stretch back a bow with bloodied hands, and we later come face-to-face with a pincushioned corpse.
We see war footage on television.
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word and four or five s-words. Jesus' name is abused once; God's name a handful of times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Adults and a teenager drink wine.
Other Negative Elements
Father and daughter get into some pretty serious fights—and we're not just talking the verbal variety. Sometimes it's sparring (as part of her training, Hanna knows her father can attack her at any time), but the two also have a brutal "real" confrontation.
Marissa flosses her teeth with a certain wolfish brutality, spitting a mouthful of blood into the sink. Sophie discusses a fungal infection in her toenails.
When Marissa and Erik face each other for the last time, Marissa asks him why he let Hanna leave. "Kids grow up," Erik says with a smile. And in that moment, he seems like any other father who watches his child graduate from high school, get married or move away from home.
So in Hanna we see a child become a woman. And we also see a killing machine develop a conscience. Though the girl was built to coldly kill from conception, her contact with the outside world—particularly with one rather bizarre family—warms her. Even though she's supposedly had her inclinations toward compassion and mercy pulled out of her DNA, she does indeed become compassionate.
"Please," she begs Marissa. "I don't want to hurt anyone anymore. Let me go."
But the movie allows no gentle endings. If this be a fairy tale, it's a brutal one. The winner survives. The loser is hunted down. And many ancillary innocents with the temerity to get involved are ground to gravel.
Perhaps we can't judge Hanna too harshly for who she is or tell her who she should become. She's a genetic experiment whose nature and nurture conspire to turn her face toward darkness. But the filmmakers have no such excuse. They crafted Hanna's world as surely as Erik honed her skills, making it impossible for her to find true happiness, true redemption. So Hanna becomes a dragon of a film, mired in bloodshed and brutality. And even Mr. Chesterton would have to admit that it's hard to beat a dragon when you live inside its belly.