The Subversive Thrills of Hanna

Amazon’s new eight-part series about a 15-year-old girl trained as a ferocious killer is—intermittently—a blast to watch.

Esme Creed-Miles, who plays the title role in Hanna, is riveting in an otherworldly way, imbuing the character with emotional vulnerability and physical power. (Jonathan Prime / Amazon Studios)

The title character in Hanna, played by Esme Creed-Miles in Amazon’s eight-part series, is part cartoon character, part horror-movie wraith. All vast, dark eyes and heavy black hair obscuring her face, Hanna speaks softly and blinks infrequently. In the show’s first scene, she’s just a baby, stolen from a sinister facility and hidden by her father (played by Joel Kinnaman) deep in the snowy Romanian woods. But any fairy-tale allusions are dispelled the first time the 15-year-old Hanna appears, fixing her gaze on an adorable baby deer. Within a fraction of a second, she’s pulled her gun and blown its head off.

Hanna is drawn from the 2011 movie of the same name, expanded by the same writer (The Night Manager’s David Farr), and its first few episodes are taken almost beat by beat from the same story. Erik, Hanna’s father, has raised her entirely alone, replacing the fundamentals of childhood education with a more specific program. He’s trained her to fight, run, shoot, and maim anyone who threatens her; to speak multiple languages; to never go farther in the woods than the trees painted with red lines; and to pretend to be a normal teenage girl (this part involves naming your favorite Beatles songs and pretending to have seen The Godfather). Human beings, he tells her, are “dangerous and not to be trusted.” The same people who killed her mother want to kill her, too, and if they find her, they will.

But because Hanna is a teenage girl, she disobeys him, leaving the sanctioned area of the woods, talking to a boy, and drawing the entire might of a clandestine CIA army right to her. Hanna and her father are separated, and it quickly becomes clear once Hanna’s in official custody that she’s even stranger and more powerful than she seems.

Joe Wright, the director of the 2011 Hanna, leaned heavily on the mythology of the story—of children enduring rites of passage on their path toward adulthood. The movie was a zippy, gory, exhilarating action parable, as Hanna shattered bones and slashed throats to the beat of a thumping score by the Chemical Brothers. The series, by contrast, uses songs by Karen O and her band, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and the difference in aesthetics speaks volumes. With many more hours at his disposal, Farr seems to want to go deeper under Hanna’s skin, exploring the loneliness and the poignancy of a motherless girl who will always feel like an alien. “You’re unique,” the CIA dark-ops agent Marissa Wiegler (Mireille Enos) tells Hanna in one episode. “Unique just means alone,” Hanna replies.

The only problem with this approach is that there are action thrillers and there are heartfelt coming-of-age dramas and there are “special girl” mysteries (Stranger Things being the most recent), but pulling off all three at once is exceedingly challenging. Expanded into almost eight hours of television, Hanna also suffers from the streaming-show curse of having a gripping beginning, a propulsive conclusion, and a saggy pile of nothing in between. In its opening episode, as Hanna sweats through push-ups in the snow and shins up vast pine trees and runs up jagged mountains with rocks in her backpack, the scene feels like a gratifying twist on every training montage in every underdog movie. Creed-Miles, grunting and grimacing, makes you feel every strain, every splinter. A few episodes later, when Hanna’s somehow embedded with a family in England and is hiding in a camper van while a middle-aged man cries about his marriage, the energy has rather left the building.

What makes Hanna worth sticking through is the performances from its three principals. Creed-Miles, the daughter of the ferociously talented actor Samantha Morton, is riveting in an otherworldly way as Hanna, imbuing the character with emotional vulnerability and physical power. Even more striking is how she communicates Hanna’s intelligence, how fleet and observant and hyperalert she is. Her chemistry with Kinnaman reverberates through the screen, lifting every scene in which they’re together. However angry Hanna is with him, however frustrated, it’s obvious that she trusts him implicitly, and no one else.

Kinnaman, too, is conspicuously good as Erik, leaping through his action scenes with balletic efficiency but bringing poignancy and sadness to Erik as a father. Enos is fascinating to watch as Marissa, changing her voice to fit her various roles at work and at home, and stretching her face into a wide, joyless smile that always portends danger. Marissa could easily feel ripped out of a Jason Bourne movie, but in Enos’s hands, she’s much more complicated and interesting than the one-note, deep-state baddies of yore.

In the scenes when all three are engaged, stalking through European cities, joyriding helicopters, and shooting out genteel outdoor cafés, Hanna feels explosively good, the rare intelligent action thriller that subverts storytelling tropes and surfs on its own ingenuity. (As with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Hunger Games franchise, there’s still something entirely satisfying about watching a teenage girl possessed with such improbable power.) In other scenes, that ingenuity gets lost in a mood board of decorative visuals (light dappling through fabric, leaves dancing in the wind) that bloats the series’ running time and hobbles its pace, especially given that the central mystery is easy to decipher. But when the show lets Hanna loose, it’s undeniably something to see.