Turner Classic Movies
Hannah and Her Sisters
Written by A.J. Hakari   

Woody Allen has long since been acknowledged as one of the 20th century's greatest comedic minds. For me, his forays into drama and more bittersweet stories represent his true talent as a filmmaker. Allen's knack for melding genres and presenting his characters in refreshingly natural lights has hardly been executed as well as it has in 1986's Hannah and Her Sisters starring Allen, Mia Farrow and Dianne Wiest.

Mia Farrow & Dianne Wiest
Hannah is about as pitch-perfect as movies can get. Allen doesn't try to hammer a message into your skull or resort to clunky conventions to drive the story forward. Instead, he allows his characters to do what they will, their respective dramas each contributing a little piece to the rather lovely mosaic the film becomes.

Our story begins on a pleasant Thanksgiving night, in Hannah's (Farrow) home. She seems to have it all - from a warm home to a family she raises with her loving husband Elliot (Michael Caine). But while things on Hannah's end are almost too perfect, her friends and family seem to all be going through their own personal crises.

Although still very much in love with Hannah, Elliot finds himself strongly drawn to her sister, Lee (Barbara Hershey), a free spirit involved with an intense artist (Max von Sydow). Hannah's other sister, Holly (Wiest), continues to question her own confidence and self-esteem, as she and a friend (Carrie Fisher) find themselves interested in the same man. Then there's Hannah's neurotic ex Mickey (Allen), who, in the wake of a health scare, finds himself searching for the meaning of life - something that all of these close-knit characters are trying to do.

Hannah and Her Sisters isn't really about anything. It's pure character observation, a free-form piece of work that fortunately isn't dictated by certain plot mechanics. Free from having to abide by the rules of a particular formula, the characters are allowed to come to life, make mistakes, and not necessarily get what they want. Allen takes pleasure in following the lives of these people in a matter that's not intrusive or exploitative, but rather delicate and caring. The film's atmosphere is an inviting one, showing concern and care for the personas in the story, so viewers are never left feeling like they're staring at some oddities at the zoo. All of the drama unfolds in a realistic fashion, and light dashes of humor are interwoven seamlessly, neither genre overpowering the other or overwhelming the story as a whole. Hannah and Her Sisters is just an incredibly well-balanced film overall, coming across with an organic feel that can't be described as well as it can be experienced.

Much of the film's success is due to Allen's loose but careful direction and introspective screenplay. The bulk of it, however, is a result of a smashing ensemble cast, one of the most varied and comfortable groups of actors Allen has ever worked with.

Wiest and Caine both earned Oscars for their performances here, and it's not hard to see why. Wiest brings plenty of spark and sympathy to her role, that of a wounded woman who finds that the key to unleashing her artistic potential might mean hurting the ones she loves. Caine, one of my favorite actors, nails his character and then some, playing Elliot as someone who's not sure whether he's been struck by love or lust.

Hershey is equally impressive as Lee, who's just as conflicted about her feelings for Elliot as he is about her. Hannah actually stays in the background for most of the story, though Farrow does a great job of revealing much about her character by doing very little. Allen's role is that of comic relief, but there is profundity to be found as Mickey contemplates his existence, jumping from faith to faith as he looks for answers.

Though some characters come across as a little shortchanged (von Sydow's in particular), Hannah and Her Sisters leaves everyone with plenty of time to shine. It's a film of much heart and humor, one that effortlessly involves viewers in the world of the people inhabiting it. Just imagine a soap opera with the all the corny melodrama removed, and that's a good example of what Hannah and Her Sisters is like.

Director: Woody Allen

Writer: Woody Allen

Cast: Mia Farrow, Dianne Wiest, Barbara Hershey, Woody Allen, Michael Caine, Max von Sydow, Carrie Fisher

Rating: PG-13 (adult dialogue, thematic issues)

Classic Movie Guide Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Run Time: 107 minutes

Studio: Orion Pictures

Format: Color, widescreen

Photo credits: Orion Pictures




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