Magical storytelling

New-Age Director

“Drama can be presented onstage, and beautiful pictures can be presented in a gallery, but real action is pure cinema,” Wright said on the phone recently.

By action, he said, he did not necessarily mean the chases and explosions that typify the summer movie season but rather “the organisation of figures in space.” He added, “It’s a pleasurable thing to tell stories simply by movement.”

His new film, Hanna, afforded plenty of opportunities for kinetic storytelling. Starring Saoirse (she pronounces it SER-shah) Ronan, the young Irish actress who received an Oscar nomination for her role in Atonement, the movie recounts the violent coming of age of a teenager raised in the frigid wilds of Finland by her father (Eric Bana), and for reasons that are initially unclear, trained to be an assassin.

In more ways than one, Hanna is a departure for Wright, 39, who with his previous films has shouldered the obligations of fidelity: translating Jane Austen or Ian McEwan to the screen, or in the 2009 film The Soloist, about the friendship between a newspaperman and a homeless Juilliard dropout, relying on the accounts of the journalist Steve Lopez.

On Hanna, Wright worked for the first time with an original screenplay (by Seth Lochhead and David Farr). “I like the limitations of an adaptation, possibly the safety of it,”  Wright said. “The freedom of an original story can be terrifying, but it was also liberating.”

When Ronan, who turns 17 this month, signed on to Hanna, Focus Features, which produced the film, did not have a director attached. She immediately suggested Wright.

“I said, ‘Just tell him I’m doing it,’ ” Ronan said on the phone from Dublin. “Which was a bit cheeky, but then Joe rang me up a few days later.”

For Wright the chance to work again with Ronan was a major draw. “I wanted to see how she’d evolved as an actress,” he said. (A London native and resident, he was calling from California, where his wife, the sitarist Anoushka Shankar, had given birth to a baby boy a few weeks earlier.)

When he read the script, “it had gone through a development process and was more of a procedural thriller,” Wright said. But he detected an intriguing surrealist undertone, and Hanna struck him as “a holy fool character,” he said, comparing her to innocents like ET and Kaspar Hauser, a 19th-century German who supposedly grew up without human contact.

“I like what these characters can show us philosophically about contemporary society,” he said. “Hanna is someone who’s not been taught to judge anything. She has an open awareness of the world, almost in a spiritual sense.”

Unlike most holy fool figures, however, Hanna happens also to be a killing machine. Ronan said she thought of Hanna as the ultimate teenage misfit more than an action heroine. “They’re cool, they have great catchphrases. But Hanna isn’t like that at all. She’s a bit of a freak, in a great way,”she said.

Wright noted that all his films are “told from a very subjective point of view,” whether that of the pragmatic, romantic Lizzy Bennet in Pride and Prejudice; the guilt-stricken Briony Tallis in Atonement; or the schizophrenic Nathaniel Ayers in The Soloist. “Trying to see the world from someone else’s reality,” Wright said, “that’s kind of the point of what I do.”

Since Hanna is essentially a blank slate, the progress of the movie — which takes her from the Arctic Circle to the Moroccan Sahara, through Spain and finally to Berlin — corresponds to her “growing awareness of the world,” Wright said.

Hanna is on a mission to reunite with her father, but in a sense the real drama arises when this teenage girl who had no female role models encounters other girls and women for the first time: a pop-culture-obsessed teenager (Jessica Barden) and her hippie-ish mother (Olivia Williams), and the villainous federal agent (Cate Blanchett) who has a history with Hanna’s father. “It’s not something I like to analyse too deeply. But I like women, and I’m interested in our preconceptions about their roles in society,” Wright said.

In his estimation, the most effective action set piece of recent years is from the 2003 Korean film Oldboy: a tracking shot down a long corridor that unfolds without a single cut.

Wright also cited the master of the samurai epic, Akira Kurosawa, who quickened pulses through precise composition and montage long before the advent of digital technology, and the distilled style of Robert Bresson. Given his fondness for the long take, choreography is a central aspect of  Wright’s films.

On a film like Hanna, which he called “an action film on a drama budget,” a complicated single take requires hours of rehearsal, but a chopped-up scene would entail days of setups. Wright’s next project, Anna Karenina, returns him to his familiar turf of literary cinema.

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