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HANNAH AND HER SISTERS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Woody Allen, Michael Caine, Mia Farrow, Carrie Fisher, Barbara Hershey, Lloyd Nolan, Maureen O’Sullivan, Daniel Stern, Max von Sydow, Dianne Wiest
Director:  Woody Allen
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  MGM
Features:  Theatrical Trailer
Length:  107 Minutes
Release Date:  November 6, 2001

“People always ask, why?  The question isn’t why, the question is, given what we are, why not more often?”

Film ****

Hannah and her Sisters is a vital comic and dramatic motion picture from Woody Allen, who deservedly collected his second Best Original Screenplay Oscar for his efforts.  It’s a wonderful, thorough look at some very charming characters centered around three sisters, the men in their lives, and the ever-changing dynamics of their relationships.

Hannah (Farrow) is the sister who seems to have it all:  money, security, love, and a selfless desire to help others.  However, she isn’t aware that her seemingly devoted husband Elliot (Caine, in an Oscar winning role) is secretly in love with one of her sisters, Lee (Hershey, in her pre-lip implant days).  Lee has been living in an unhealthy relationship with an older artist (von Sydow) that she is beginning to outgrow.  The new angle of blossoming love between her and her sister’s husband becomes a major complication all around. 

Hannah’s other sister, Holly (Wiest, another Oscar winner) is unfocused, uses drugs, and seems unable to make anything of her life.  Every enterprise she tries, with the financial backing of Hannah, fails for one reason or another.  She dreams big, but her insecurities and personal demons are a constant thwart.

Ironically, Hannah seems to represent the moral certainty of the picture, even though we see things about her life that she doesn’t…namely, the fact that her picture perfect marriage may be ending without any forewarning.  Allen incorporates lots of voiceovers here to let us know what his characters are thinking, which continually provides us with information that is sometimes contrary to the image on the screen.

In a side story that’s both amusing and touching, Woody plays Hannah’s ex-husband Mickey, a hypochondriac television producer who learns he may be dying for real.  Some have accused Allen of playing the same character over and over in his movies, but I personally think that as far as performance goes, this is his true crowning achievement.  He handles the role with humor and sympathy, and despite having a smaller part in the picture, remains one of the most memorable of the characters.

But all of the characters are memorable, which is why of all of Allen’s films, Hannah and her Sisters always maintains the best feeling of familiarity for me.  No matter how many years pass since I last viewed it, seeing it again is always akin to visiting old friends.  The fact that the movie begins and ends on Thanksgiving, with another Thanksgiving part way through, helps give it that sense of mi familia.  Every year, the people are all there at the dinner table…they’re the same, even if their relationships have changed.

Allen’s dramatic structure plays like a good novel.  He divides his picture into chapters, with titles largely devoted to each of the individual characters (and thankfully, on this DVD, with the French subtitles to the chapter names returned).  By Allen’s own admission, he modeled the movie after books like Anna Karenina, “where you get a little bit of somebody’s story and a little bit of somebody else’s and then somebody else’s and then back to the first”. 

Cinematically, his most remarkable sequence is a dinner the three sisters share…the camera circles them endlessly from the outside, as true feelings are bared, maybe for the first time in their lives.  Working for the first time with cinematographer Carlo Di Palma, who helped usher Allen into the so-called “European film”  era of his career…later pictures like Crimes and Misdemeanors and Radio Days would expand on that style.

But character, story, and technique considered, there is so much to appreciated about Hannah and her Sisters, one could easily overlook the existential questions raised by the film.  “The only absolute knowledge attainable by man is that life is meaningless,” according to Leo Tolstoy in one of the title cards.  In one way or another, many of the characters are struggling with that very notion.  If it’s true, it lends a certain moral ambiguity to their situations.  Mickey seems to have always believed that…yet if he really does, why does the thought of dying make such a wreck of him?

That is the genius of Allen…he creates real people with real issues and makes it as though he allows them to explore their lives for themselves with no foregone conclusions.  Are these the most pivotal two years in these characters’ lives, or are they simply the most immediate?  The fact that one can ponder such heady questions while being thoroughly entertained by a good movie is a wonderful experience.

Video ***1/2

This is a most impressive anamorphic offering from MGM, and I spent a good many minutes comparing it to my old, worn VHS copy.  The DVD is a revelation, and I have to admit, I never really appreciated Carlo Di Palma’s cinematography before seeing it on disc.  The colors are vibrant and beautiful, and the level of detail in shot after shot is remarkable, even in deep focus.  The contrast levels are high; this produces some grain from time to time that isn’t really distracting, but noticeable if you study the images long enough.  To say this is the best Hannah has ever looked for home viewing is an understatement…fans will be very pleased.

Audio **1/2

Although a typical Woody Allen two-channel mono mix, I have to give this audio presentation an extra half-star for sounding a little more full than his usual offering, with nice renderings of ensemble scenes, and a nice score of old songs.  It’s very clean and clear, and even boasts some bits of dynamic range.

Features *

Only a trailer.

Summary:

Hannah and her Sisters is a standout masterpiece from a filmmaker who’s made a lot of them.  Witty, charming, and subtly deep in thought, not to mention filled with wonderful and unforgettable characters, this triple Oscar winner from Woody Allen is one no fan of his should be without.