Friday 25 January 2013

Films: Hanna (2011), and The Hunger Games (2012)

Two films with a common element: the heroines are teenage girls who are compelled to fight for their lives in extreme circumstances. By a strange coincidence, the opening sequences of both films also have the heroines hunting deer with bows and arrows. However, at that point the plot similarities come to an end.

Hanna is set in more or less the present day. We first see the eponymous 15-year-old heroine (played by Saoirse Ronan) living with her father Erik Heller (Eric Bana) in an isolated log cabin in a remote near-Arctic forest wilderness. We soon learn two things about her: this life is all she has known, and she is being trained by her father (who we later learn used to be an important C.I.A. operative) to be a lethal fighter for some specific purpose. All of her learning comes from an encyclopedia; she has never met anyone else, seen electric power, or heard music. Inevitably, she becomes old enough to decide that she wants to go out into the world, so Heller gives her a radio signalling device to draw attention to their location, while he makes his separate way to civilisation. The signaller sounds an alarm in the C.I.A., alerting senior officer Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), who realises it comes from Heller and immediately sends an armed team to the log cabin. The rest of the film follows Hanna, Heller, and Weigler until they inevitably come together in a brutal finale, gradually revealing the true nature of their relationships and why Hanna is such a uniquely effective fighter. And in case you were wondering, there is an SF element which emerges towards the end.

This is a surprisingly adult film, not the cartoon-type kick-ass juvenile I was half expecting. The drama is relieved by some rather surreal characters and occasional humour as the unworldly heroine is introduced to modern technology and human behaviour. Well-acted and intriguing, if rather grim.

The Hunger Games is based on the novel of the same name (which I haven't read) by Suzanne Collins, who also co-authored the screenplay. It has a very different setting, in a future country called Panem in which a modern civil war had resulted in each of the twelve rebellious Regions having to send one boy and one girl teenager to participate in the annual Hunger Game. This is no sporting contest, however; it is a fight to the death, which only one can survive to win fame and fortune.

THG is a film of two halves: the first half is concerned with the build-up to the Game, the second with the Game itself. We start in the poverty-stricken Region 12 by getting to know Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a capable archer and hunter, who becomes one of the tributes (participants) in the Game. The scenes of her life are contrasted with those in the high-tech Capitol where preparations are being made for the forthcoming Game under the direction of the Gamemaker, Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley). The build-up to the event is very good, the tension steadily building as the tributes are prepared for the Game, including rather bizarre public relations events to drum up sponsors for each tribute - support which could make the difference between life and death. By the time the Game actually begins, the tension is at a maximum. The arena is an area of forest in which the two dozen tributes form shifting alliances, cooperating with and killing each other depending on the circumstances, while the Gamemaker keeps adjusting the rules in order to keep the audience entertained.

This is an exciting film, the first half leaving me on the edge of my seat. Ironically I found that the tension dissipated to some extent once the Game began, when it settled into being a more routine combat tale. A couple of issues concerning the principal character nagged at me. First, it is never explained why she obtains the highest all-round combat score in the pre-games tests, beating boys who have trained for the Games for years, when she seems very passive and placid, and we only see her use a bow. Secondly, the actress doesn't really look the part: her family is supposed to be very poor and in one flashback scene we see her starving and being thrown a burnt loaf of bread, yet she always looks very well-fed. I think a lean and hungry actress with a lot of pent-up aggression would have been better suited for the role.

These two films are very different in style, but both are well worth watching. If I had to pick one to see again, it would be the quirky, offbeat Hanna rather than the humourless THG, because I liked the contrast between the strange premise and the current, ordinary world in which it takes place.

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