There’s this moment in Joe Wright’s 2011 action-thriller Hanna that I return to sometimes. Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) is riding on the back of a motorbike with a boy in Morocco. Her eyelids are strategically smudged with glittery silver eyeshadow. Her lips are painted a pale pink and her long elfish blonde hair is blowing in the breeze. The boy driving the motorcycle asks, “Are you scared?” Without a beat Hanna replies, “Of what?” Hanna’s eagerness to immerse herself in new experiences like this motorcycle ride—experiences which are often sensory, intimate and musical—continues to resonate with me on the film’s 10th anniversary.
What’s striking isn’t the twinge of teen romance or the anxiety that this is the moment in which Hanna will be caught by the skinhead cronies of Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), the vengeful CIA officer who wants her dead. Rather, it is how resonantly blissful Hanna’s introduction to pubescent normalcy remains and the ways it is facilitated by Hanna’s first friend, Sophie (Jessica Barden). Amid the chaos of delicious albeit gruesome action sequences—the rumbling engine of the motorbike, the whipping wind—Hanna’s audible, excited breath purposefully interrupts the otherwise gunshot and technobeat-laden soundscape of the film. With little dialogue in this fleeting, seemingly superfluous moment, Hanna basks in the moonglow around her. She listens to Sophie, who also sits behind some boy on a motorbike a few paces behind, squeal with joy. Here Hanna gets to be young and fifteen and have her life full of people. For a moment, she is free of the pressures of being the skilled assassin her ex-CIA operative father Erik (Eric Bana) raised her to be in rural Finland.
Later the foursome (Hanna, Sophie and the two Spanish boys they ride on bikes with) attend a cozy fireside flamenco performance. Hanna is swaddled in the warmth of the fire and sound of voices rattling and hands clapping. This is an important moment for Hanna, who’s always been interested in the concept of music but unversed in the specifics of it. In an early scene, her father reads to her about music: “A combination of sounds, with a view to beauty of form and expression of emotion.” But during the flamenco performance—one star in a constellation of the film’s brief musical moments—Hanna gets to experience music firsthand, and with it her own corresponding emotions.
This motorcycle sequence tonally matches one that comes after, when Hanna sits in Sophie’s family van with her head outside of the window. The Moroccan sun kisses her skin and the wind is in her hair, a staunch environmental juxtaposition to the cold sterility of the Finnish tundra she grew up in. As Hanna leans out the window, Sophie’s mother Rachel (Olivia Williams) soliloquizes about how “nature brings us closer to God.” “Hanna’s Theme,” a song composed by The Chemical Brothers for the film, plays. “Hanna’s Theme” is full of layered, humming voices and twinkling instruments. It’s the sonic equivalent of lazily dragging your palm back and forth over the surface of soft shag carpet. It sounds like the possibility and promise of every Saturday morning.
Hanna is peppered with these brief moments which refreshingly undercut the otherwise well-choreographed tension that shrouds the film. They do well to highlight how unfamiliar she is with the quotidian aspects of teenage life, despite her precociousness as a polyglot, adept hand-to-hand combat fighter and hunter. Her skills serve her well as she evades Zigler’s hired hands and attempts to reunite with her father in Berlin. But as much as Hanna is a story about a young girl’s survival, Wright and screenwriters Seth Lochhead and David Farr create a world in which Hanna’s survival is hinged upon killing Zigler and upon experiencing unfamiliar, deeply human things for the first time. She is defending her life throughout the film, but also learning what living is all about. The way that Hanna’s self-actualization is marked by music and her friendship with Sophie, not merely by her will to survive, remains one of the most transcendent aspects of the film.
Hanna first meets Sophie, a chatty British teen, and Sophie’s younger brother Miles (Aldo Maland) in the Moroccan desert after Hanna escapes the CIA facility where she is first interrogated. They take a liking to Hanna and invite her along to travel with their family, who is driving across Morocco. Hanna declines their invitation but sneaks into the family’s van later on where she witnesses the family sing along to David Bowie’s “Kooks” as they travel to a nearby city.
“Kooks” is about non-belonging and people who stand out (kooks) supporting one another. Bowie repeats “Will you stay in our lover’s story / If you stay you won’t be sorry / ’Cause we believe in you.” The song is an invitation paralleling and reinforcing Sophie and Miles’ invitation.
Like the motorcycle ride, this is a small scene. But it’s one in which Hanna, unbeknownst to the family, witnesses the personal, lived-in experiences people have every day. Although Hanna is close to her father, he has been her only company for a majority of her life. Therefore, Hanna possesses distinct survival skills, borderline encyclopedic knowledge about the population of certain European cities, etc. But she doesn’t know how to dance. What it means to be kissed by a loving mother, or by anyone at all. She is less fluent in being a person. Hanna’s adept at tactically striking at a moment’s notice; unfamiliar with the luxuries of boredom or the precarious and intimate nature of play.
As she watches the family sing along to “Kooks,” she is corroborating her textbook understanding of family to an actual family. You can see Hanna’s delight at the sight of familial connection. It’s through these moments that Hanna’s self-actualization is repeatedly signaled to the audience—and experienced by Hanna—through an incorporation of music, be it The Chemical Brothers, flamenco or Ziggy Stardust. The transformative musical moments are inextricable from Sophie’s character and the catalyzing influence female friendship has on Hanna. Sophie is an effective stand-in for the audience, as she experiences a level of curiosity at Hanna’s inexperience and otherworldliness just as the audience does. Sophie understands teenage life, music, parties. Hanna’s joy ride, sticking her head out the window, listening along to Bowie—even her first kiss happens with and because of Sophie. Sophie is a maestro for Hanna’s emotional interiority.
In a pivotal scene in which Sophie and Hanna talk at night beneath a bedsheet, the duo exchange words of care. Hanna admits that people are after her and that she doesn’t want to endanger Sophie. She asks Sophie, “Can we still be friends?” Sophie expresses uncertainty, but gifts Hanna a friendship bracelet. In return, Hanna kisses Sophie on the lips and the pair fall asleep. The kiss isn’t precisely romantic (although Sophie speaks cheekily in the film about aspiring to be a lesbian that marries a man) but it is tender. Particular. Intimate. It is the physical embodiment of all of the kindness and actions of concern that Hanna and Sophie exchange. The kiss bridges the divide in personality and experience that first fosters the intrigue and comfort that Hanna and Sophie find in one another’s company. The kiss is both a thank you and goodbye.
Acclaim and appreciation for Hanna run deep partially because of its intriguing premise and impressive action. As people celebrate and return to Ronan’s performance and the film as a whole, let’s not forgot how Hanna’s power as a character lies not only in her badassery but also in the youthful abandon with which she finds a friend and learns to listen to music—and the subsequent “expression of emotion” she didn’t know she had in her.
Adesola Thomas is a screenwriter and culture writer. She loves talking about Annette Benning’s performance in 20th Century Women and making lasagna.