Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

Hannah and Her SistersUntil Midnight In Paris was released 25 years later, Hannah and Her Sisters was Woody Allen’s biggest box office hit. After the period fable of Purple Rose Of Cairo, this is a return to contemporary New York and characters struggling with careers, love and the meaning of life. Back to so-called standard Woody fare.

The Hannah of the film’s title is not the central character. In fact there are no central characters – this is the first of Woody’s films to present a mosaic of characters, connected by family, who weave in and out of each other’s lives over a period of two years. Michael Caine plays Hannah’s husband, Elliot, who begins an affair with Hannah’s sister, Lee (Barbara Hershey). Hannah’s other sister, Holly (Dianne Wiest), struggles to find the kind of romantic or career success her sisters (seemingly) have. Meanwhile, Hannah’s ex-husband, Mickey (Woody Allen), struggles to find the meaning of existence as he survives a cancer scare and dabbles with other religions.

HannahAs this very truncated description demonstrates, Hannah herself is not the focus of any story, and as such on this viewing she was the most interesting character to me. I also enjoyed the sub-plot (though they are all sub-plots really) of Hannah’s parents: two ageing performers who bicker and sing old songs. All the performances are uniformly excellent (Caine and Wiest both won Oscars) and the seasons, particularly winter, in New York is captured perfectly by Woody’s new DOP, Carlo di Palma.

Though this film features Woody’s best cast yet, like Purple Rose, it’s the script that is most impressive. Besides Hannah, the characters appear to enjoy equal weight, with their individual stories progressing and crossing each other seamlessly, and each character given an illuminating interior monologue. While the dramatic conflicts range from the romantic to the existential, the tone ranges from comedy in Woody’s quest to find a new religion to the almost soap opera of Barbara Hershey’s affair.

Woody MiaI’ve had the soundtrack to this film for a long time on vinyl, and now CD, and it is a wonderful collection of music from the upbeat big bands of Count Basie and Harry James to some beautiful new readings of Rodgers and Hart songs by Dick Hyman and Derek Smith on piano. Another memorable performance on the soundtrack which was captured for the film is of Bobby Short performing Cole Porter’s I’m In Love Again at the Cafe Carlyle. When I finally made it to New York, back in 2000, I didn’t see Bobby Short at the Carlyle but I did see the next best thing: Woody Allen himself playing clarinet with his jazz band.

So I’ve always felt a personal attachment to this film. However while The Purple Rose of Cairo seems timeless, watching Hannah and Her Sisters again I felt that it hasn’t aged as well. That could be because Woody himself has done better – such as in Crimes and Misdemeanours – or because its storytelling style has been used by so many other films, such as in The Royal Tenenbaums. Even the chapter titles were appropriated on the long running sitcom, Frasier. But these are quibbles, and none are the fault of the film. It’s still always enjoyable to watch Michael Caine somehow be seductive while wearing the world’s biggest 1980s glasses, and to see Woody try to be a Catholic.

Next week: Radio Days


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