Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Perhaps the single best film of Woody Allen's 'mature phase', Hannah and Her Sisters is a
well-observed drama about romantic entanglements between several women, their husbands and
boyfriends, all balanced with one of Woody's neurotic characters for comedy relief. It's
definitely a family affair, with most of Mia Farrow's children involved, along with her mother
Maureen O'Sullivan. One can sense that Mia and Woody's relationship must have been a big
success at this point. No longer having anything particularly cinematic to prove, and with
most of his desires to replicate the styles of European masters finally gotten out of his system,
Allen seems to be simply expressing himself.
Hannah (Mia Farrow) is divorced from Mickey Saxe (Woody Allen) and is raising her
two children while managing the emotional lives of her parents (Maureen O'Sullivan & Lloyd Nolan)
and her sisters Lee (Barbara Hershey) and Holly (Dianne Wiest). But Hannah's husband Elliot (Michael
Caine) is straying in the direction of Lee, who's having problems with her dour artist boyfriend
Frederick (Max von Sydow). And Holly is despondent at not achieving success either in show business
or with men; her latest find David (Sam Waterston) is being poached by rival April (Carrie Fisher).
To top it all off, Mickey's doctors have him thinking he has a brain tumor, which causes him to
go on a multi-faith search for a God to believe in before it's all over!
Allen found a nice balance in Hannah and Her Sisters by concentrating on the
drama of the main story and only using his neurotic-writer-gets-sick sidestory as commercial grease.
Even then, he found a way to subdue Mickey Saxe's antics down to a more human scale. Every dialogue
line does not have a give-myself-the-good-material feeling. My favorite moment in the show is a
simple shot of Woody turning away from a holographic Jesus in a religious bookstore, with just the
right 'oh, brother' look on his face.
Through an honest sympathy for his characters, something Allen wasn't always good at before, the
little romantic dramas of Hannah and Her Sisters take on a genuine warmth. Allen's style
concentrates on little confrontations and crises, but often ellipses huge gaps in relationships
that other scenarists would keep front and center. For instance, Max Von Sydow's killjoy artist just
disappears from the show after only half of a breakup scene. We know Barbara Hershey is heading for the
relationship exit and there's no need to restate the situation. Hershey and especially Michael Caine
play the adulterous couple, In many movies Savant finds he has no patience for characters who make
others suffer to indulge their selfish romantic whims, but Allen's touch is so gentle that
we refrain from judging. Yep, Caine is a fairly distinct jerk, but he's also a fairly innocent one.
Michael Caine has a particularly deft control of the performance and our reactions to this guy; he's
such a marvellous performer.
It's also nice to see Maureen O'Sullivan (always delightful but never before playing a pain in the
neck) and Lloyd Nolan (never even likeable until now) having such a fun go as two scrapping
ex-performers whose professional immaturities never went away. These people all live in nice NYC
apartments, and are fairly well-to-do, but Savant's usual proletarian defenses never kicked in to
dismiss their problems, because their affluence is beside the point. In the center of it all is
Hannah, who never has any informed participation in the episodes boiling around her, yet pushes
through with her senses and dignity and her great Thanksgiving dinners. Allen & Co. made the drama
seem real and the characters' ways of handling their problems credible. Finally, there's an added
interest to seeing Farrow and Hershey
interact, as they were both original Hollywood flower children in the '60s, and seem to have mellowed
into such interesting women.
Savant really enjoys Allen's sentimentality when he does it well as this. Dianne Wiest's
Holly is something of a (very adorable) misfit, and her eventual linking up with Allen's Mickey is
deeply affecting. Allen even makes the cliché of the klutz turning out to be an ace writer,
a welcome twist. She does it basically by attending Community College, a positive prescription for
many a lost soul. The understatement of the conclusion between her and Woody has an unequivocated
feel-goodness about it that is irresistable.
MGM's DVD of Hannah and Her Sisters is extras-lite (trailer only) but presents the feature
in an unblemished and clear 16:9 transfer that makes you feel like you're walking the New York streets
with Woody's actors. He's quoted in the nicely chosen (for once!) liner notes on the disc insert,
that the secret to making New York look luscious
and vibrant on film is to shoot only on overcast days, which accounts for the darkness and frequent
raininess of scenes. But with the life that's injected into the story, none of this ever looks gloomy.
Perhaps not the flashiest disc on the rack, but one I'll be pulling out frequently.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Hannah and her Sisters rates:
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: October 22, 2001
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2001 Glenn Erickson
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