It was an up and down weekend at the movies. One good movie, one disappointing one. Let’s start with the good.
I’m historically divided on director Joe Wright. I loved his adaptation of Pride & Prejudice but I thought Atonement was really overrated. I’m happy to report that I really liked Hanna and so Joe Wright is officially a “director I don’t hate”. Hanna is a very stylish, very entertaining teenage assassin tale—a more realistic Hit Girl, if you will. Irish actress Saoirse Ronan kills it stone dead as Hanna, a wild-looking teen raised in the arctic wilderness by her father. Hanna’s dad, Erik (Eric Bana, Munich), is the ultimate Tiger Mother, educating Hanna in the killing arts with a ruthless efficiency that almost precludes filial love. Ronan is a young actress of extraordinary range—she’s probably going to be one of the few that not only crosses painlessly into adult fare but ends up defining a generation’s worth of actors. Just check out how she handles a bit of praise from Erik early in the film. Just the barest hint of a pleased smile flickers across her mouth before it settles back into its closed expression. It’s a really impressive moment.
Also impressive is Ronan and Bana’s physicality—you totally believe they’re capable of wrecking all the havoc they do. Bana has at least done this before, in Munich and Troy, but Ronan is still a kid and yet she completely sells Hanna’s deadly combat skills. She also sells Hanna’s reactions to the modern world. Raised in primitive conditions in the arctic with only her father and some wolves for company, Hanna has no social skills and has only ever heard of electricity. She is overwhelmed, believably so, by modern technology although she does adapt awfully fast. Her social graces remain nil, however, which leads to some genuinely funny scenes with a caravanning British family she encounters in Morocco (Jessica Barden, Tamara Drewe, steals a couple scenes as the spoiled daughter of hippie parents).
And then there’s Cate Blanchett, the inimitable Cate who is so often the best part of whatever she’s in. It’s no different here—as CIA operative Marissa Wiegler, Blanchett is a chilling foe but Ronan holds her own, not getting out-acted or out-shone in any scene with Blanchett. This is one of my favorite Blanchett roles of late. Her pale, almost otherworldly beauty is played as hard and cold and Marissa is the kind of woman who never has a hair out of place. Blanchett infuses her with a ruthlessness that is borderline mechanical yet when confronted with her childlessness or the ending of her career she gets jittery and angry. There is a lot of latent rage in Blanchett’s Marissa.
Hanna is a beautifully photographed film, with artfully composed scenes, especially in the arctic, and terrific action sequences. Thanks to the Chemical Brothers’ thumping techno score, Hanna’s escape from the CIA facility plays out like a music video. This is a very slick, very stylish film that explodes into shocking violence every eight minutes or so. Really, I’m kind of stunned this passed for PG-13, but I suppose the actual gore content is pretty low despite all the neck-snapping and pipe-stabbing. But herein lays the fault of Hanna: It doesn’t really have a heart. Yes, this is a well-made, well-acted, entertaining movie. But it left me curiously empty afterward. It was a bit like Chinese food—I was full for thirty minutes but then I wanted something more substantial.
This had one of the funniest red band trailers I’ve seen in a while, and it has the benefit of reuniting (most of) the team behind Pineapple Express. Written by Danny McBride and Ben Best, who have written two of my favorite comedy things, The Foot Fist Way and Eastbound & Down, Your Highness should have worked. It really should have. But it didn’t. For reasons that remain a mystery. The setups are all there, with references to everything from Monty Python to The Princess Bride to Clash of the Titans (the original one). Yet no joke ever really landed. The best bit in the movie is when one random Conan the Barbarian type joins the quest and is promptly and bloodily killed. Everything else fell flat, if it landed at all.
Starring McBride and the now-overexposed James Franco, Your Highness is about two medieval-ish princes—one, Fabious (Franco), is handsome and brave and is endlessly questing for the honor of his kingdom. The other, Thadeous (McBride), is a lout. When Fabious’ bride, Belladonna (a criminally misused Zooey Deschanel) is kidnapped by an evil wizard, Leezar (Justin Theroux from the John Adams miniseries), Fabious sets out to rescue her and Thadeous is forced along. Brit comic actor Rasmus Hardiker (nothing you’ve ever heard of before) plays well as Thadeous’ hapless servant, Courtney, but inevitably just as he’d start doing something funny the bit would end.
Your Highness is a big-budgeted fantasy film masterminded and controlled by a certified comic genius—how did this fail? I thought this would do for those cheesy 1980’s fantasy/adventure films like Legend, The Dark Crystal and Ladyhawke what Pineapple Express did for 1980’s bad-cop movies. But no. All Your Highness managed to do was make me sad. So much potential. So much wasted potential. McBride has stated that the original script was massive in scope and that in order to get the movie made it had to be pared back to something more reasonable—perhaps that accounts for the truncated feel of the movie. Maybe Your Highness should have been a twenty-part cable series and not a two hour movie.
Director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express, Snow Angels) made a viable film, though. The failures weren’t on his part. The Northern Ireland vistas are gorgeous, the action scenes are well-shot and everyone looks really good in their Renaissance Fair clothes. There’s a carriage chase scene that works really well and the SFX manage to look both cheesy and great at the same time. Your Highness is actually a pretty good looking film. It just isn’t very funny.