Retro Movie Review: 'Hannah and Her Sisters' (1986)

After hearing this touted as the greatest film in Woody Allen’s repertoire, there were obviously high expectations going in. Judged against the backdrop of Allen’s cornucopia of other films, it is strangely endearing. The answer to whether it is his best film; is up to personal interpretation.

Personally, the answer is that it is not. Analyzing the film based on its own merit, it is still an entertaining and thought provoking work that investigates all of the core questions that are at the heart of most of Allen’s theatrical explorations.

Remembering that “Hannah and Her Sisters” was made in 1986, adds needed perspective to the progressive themes that have dulled with time, especially when contrasted with current culture. The story Allen tells is that of a trio of sisters and the hub of the familial wheel, Hannah (Mia Farrow).

She is oblivious that her husband (Michael Caine) is infatuated with her sister (Barbara Hershey) and that her ex-husband (Woody Allen) is dealing with a life-crisis. Through the course of two Thanksgivings, the surrounding neurosis that inhabits the family, threatens to tear them apart.

The questions that are raised throughout the course of the film stem back to what some could argue is a recurring theme throughout most of Allen’s films. 'Is carnal betrayal equal to emotional betrayal?' 'If one breaks the bonds of intimate loyalty, is it a deal breaker?' Here, as with Allen’s recent ventures, such as “Vicky Christina Barcelona”, the answer Allen seems to have come to is “no”.

Throughout his films, characters cheat on their partners, in a way that mirrors the symptoms of an ailment. First is the spark of infatuation, then the chase of the unattainable, the eventual capture of the desired paramour and finally boredom, a realization that the grass wasn’t any greener on the other side. 

The provocative aspect that Allen consistently depicts is that the cheater does not disclose their indiscretion. This, depending on your personal feelings, can have a significant bristling effect.

It is a scenario that lacks a comeuppance for the cheaters and points to Allen at least posturing that infidelity, isn’t always a sentence of relationship doom. 

It’s this common subject matter that makes “Hannah and Her Sisters” along with several other Allen movies, stay with the viewer long after the credits roll. Soul searching over the events they have just seen.

It’s not easily cut and dry. There is a grey area and what a film like this manages to do isn’t influence you one way or another. Instead, it reveals the native reaction of the viewer.

The performances by the cast are zanily effective. Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey and the delightful Diane Wiest all give their eccentric characters a heart, despite their absurd behavior. Michael Caine is charming as Hannah’s husband and his legendary screen charisma gives his dastardly character, a foot inside the realm of understanding.

Caine manages this by imbuing Hannah's husband with a nuance of waffling guilt and remorse. Woody Allen is highly amusing as the oddball persona that he has conjured in his other films.

The drawback with “Hannah and Her Sisters” is the grey cinematography, which makes the overall feel of the film, dreary and melancholic, despite being a comedy. Another is the weird characters are so foreign to any convention that it makes aspects of the film difficult to lose ones’ self in. 

The busied tone is engaging, but it seems to be distracting from something it’s lacking. Even after all of this time I haven’t quite put my finger, quite on what it is. Perhaps it is the realization of personal expectations that have been harbored for so many years, and finally reconciling it with the two narratives.

As with most Allen ventures, I’m still thinking about it, a gift that he has commonly bestowed. From “Annie Hall” to “Cassandra’s Dream” and even the recent “To Rome with Love”; Allen always manages to endeavor the mind and that’s always an impressive accomplishment. Rating: 7.4/10