What is it about this starry-eyed young actress that makes directors see a monster? Saoirse Ronan, soon to be 17, stars in the new action-thriller Hanna as a single-minded child assassin targeting the CIA, in particular an ice-cold agent played by Cate Blanchett; and in her next film, Violet & Daisy, she plays the comedic version, as a bubble-gum popping, gun-slinging hit-girl. After making her breakthrough in Atonement, earning an Oscar nomination for playing a unforgiving, heartsick young girl who ruins the lives of two adults, she became the go-to actress for sinister characters with a sweetheart veneer. Even in Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones, as the victim of a child-murderer, the Irish actress was the centerpiece of the darkest of storytelling, narrating the aftermath of her own demise, including the story of the man who slayed her.

Hanna delves deep into another disturbed psyche — of a little girl who has only learned two things: how to survive and how to kill. Directed by Joe Wright, who also guided her in Atonement, it is a surreal and truly grim fairy tale (accompanied by a techno Chemical Brothers score) about a young woman reared in the wilderness who is finally unleashed on Blanchett’s wicked step-mother-figure. Hanna is simultaneously Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, joined into one.

“She’s not a very human person,” Ronan concedes. “She’s grown up as, not cold, but she’s quite detached.” Wright had Ronan’s hair bleached blond, including her eyebrows and eyelashes, rendering them almost invisible and lending the character an eerie blank expression. “It was done to have the center of the face be the eyes,” she says. “If you’ve seen Atonement, you can see Joe focuses a lot on my eyes. I guess he wanted to do that on this as well. He wanted to take away everything that took away from the blue of my eyes.”

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