Hannah and her Sisters is probably the warmest of Woody Allen’s comedy-dramas, and despite much infidelity, soul-searching and repressed bitterness, it has neither Manhattan’s subtle contempt for its characters, nor Crimes and Misdemeanors’ generally bleak worldview. Allen separates the comic strands from the dramatic more deliberately, and it remains a beautifully observed portrait of sibling rivalry.
Hannah (Mia Farrow), Lee (Barbara Hershey) and Holly (Dianne Wiest) are three sisters living a privileged life in New York; daughters of a still-working showbiz couple, they deal with their insecurities in different ways. Hannah is a successful actress, wife and mother and very much the dominant sister, relentless in her quest to help others, while Lee leads a more reclusive life and is an object of desire for Hannah’s husband Elliot (Michael Caine). Holly lacks confidence and direction, forever comparing herself unfavorably to Hannah and pursuing a series of unfulfilling career paths – restaurateur, actress, writer – all bankrolled by an overgenerous Hannah.
Allen has always been a great writer of women’s roles – prior to this film, Manhattan, Interiors and The Purple Rose of Cairo all had strong female characters – and in Hannah and her Sisters the men largely take a backseat. Farrow’s is the least showy role – Hannah refuses to let her feelings rise to the surface, wrongly believing that her family’s needs come before her own. In fact this is a great source of consternation, especially for Holly, who feel she cannot compare with such unrequired martyrdom. Hershey’s Lee is a woman “suffocating” in her relationship with Frederick, a much older, intellectual snob played with cantankerous glee by Max von Sydow, and yet the affair she pursues with Elliot rocks her emotions to an even greater degree. Weiss has probably the most complex role – Holly is a recovering cocaine addict whose errant lifestyle has been largely accepted by her family, and Weiss’s ability to switch between serious and comic is a marvelous thing.
The two main male roles – Michael Caine’s Elliot and Hannah’s ex-husband Mickey, played by Allen, are important to the film for different reasons. Elliot helps us see the sisters – or rather Hannah and Lee – from the outside and despite the strangeness of hearing Caine’s plummy cockney tones in such resolutely Noo Yoik surroundings, he gives a terrifically befuddled performance of a man suffering a mid-life crisis, torn between the (mistaken) belief that he really loves Lee and his obvious devotion to his wife.
Allen’s role exists largely for comic relief, although much like every other character, Mickey is looking for some kind of meaning to his life – or to be specific, confirmation that life actually means something. The all-clear from a brain tumour scare brings on a brief elation, quickly replaced by the dread suspicion that everything is ultimately pointless. The atheist Mickey’s search for something to believe in leads him to hilariously investigate Catholicism (much to the horror of his very Jewish parents) and the Krishnas, before finally finding what he seeks in the films of the Marx brothers. Allen carefully weaves Mickey’s plight into the central narrative (although they do overlap, most notably in a funny flashback detailing a catastrophic date between Mickey and Holly), using it to lighten the mood without overshadowing the story of the three sisters.
This was Woody’s first film for eight years not to have been shot by Gordon Willis, and cinematographer Carlo DiPalma (who went on to shoot Allen’s next 14 pictures) captures New York in a far warmer style than the notoriously shadow-loving Willis. Allen takes the opportunity to showcase much of the city’s glorious architecture, and there’s the usual carefully chosen mix of ragtime jazz and classical pieces. But in general, this is a film that belongs to its three lead actresses and Allen’s witty, humane writing.
American writer/director/actor and one of the most distinctive talents in American film-making over the last three decades. Allen's successful early career as a stand-up comedian led him to start his directing life with a series of madcap, scattershot comedies that included Bananas, Sleeper and Love and Death. 1975's Oscar-winning Annie Hall was his first attempt to weave drama and comedy together, while 1979's Manhattan is considered by many critics to be Allen's masterpiece.
The 90s saw Allen keep up his one-film-a-year work-rate, the most notable being the fraught Husbands and Wives, gangster period piece Bullets Over Broadway, the savagely funny Deconstructing Harry and the under-rated Sweet and Lowdown. After a run of slight, average comedies, Allen returned to more ambitious territory with the split-story Melinda and Melinda, the dark London-set drama Match Point, romantic drama Vicky Cristina Barcelona, one of many of his films which won acting Oscars, and the unexpected late-on hits Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine. In any case, he remains an intelligent, always entertaining film-maker with an amazing back catalogue.