Review: Hannah and Her Sisters

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

Many consider Hannah and Her Sisters one of Woody Allen’s best films. Some call it his best. I find it an incredibly uneven affair. It does have undeniably strong sequences, scenes, and moments that represent tremendous growth in Allen’s skill as a filmmaker, but it also has some off-key and sometimes embarrassingly lame elements that keep it from achieving a satisfying balance. And it’s about 20 minutes too long.


Allen really hit his stride as an actor’s director here. He’s able to draw effective performances out of a large and diverse cast, ranging from the Studio Era stylings of Maureen O’Sullivan and Lloyd Nolan to the Bergmanesque gravity of Max von Sydow 

to the looser, more indie vibe of Dianne Wiest and Barbara Hershey—both of whom are exceptional, especially Hershey. Even Carrie Fisher is something other than grating for a change. The one person who can’t seem to find the right groove is Michael Caine, who has his good moments but who seems determined—like Kenneth Branagh (Celebrity) and Jesse Eisenberg (Cafe Society)—to do some kind of Woody impression. It doesn’t work.


And then there are Allen’s cringe-worthy efforts to begin dismantling his own persona. I understand that he didn’t want the nuanced version of the Woody character to detract from the more dramatic plot lines and hoped to use his character’s misadventures—mainly his scramble to find a religion he can buy into—as comic relief. But while occasional lines land, his scenes just aren’t funny. Allen always had a pitch-perfect ear for comedy, so he had to have known the bits set at the ersatz SNL were hopelessly


One of Woody Allen’s most ambitious but uneven films, it does perfectly capture New York in the mid ’80s and features a still impressive performance by Barbara Hershey.


Carlo Di Palma’s subtle cinematography needs that slight pop that Blu-ray-quality HD just can’t provide, but is pleasing here nonetheless.



Nothing very adventurous happens sonically, which is as it should be.

flat. I remain baffled by what he was going for here, and how he could have so readily abandoned a painstakingly molded character that had not only served him well but had become an unparalleled vehicle for expressing, mocking, and dissecting the age.


To return to Barbara Hershey for a moment, films like Boxcar Bertha and The Stunt Man had given her a reputation as something of an indie-film bimbo, so it was heartening to see her get the chance to play a fully fledged, non-objectified character and run with it. Ultimately, this film doesn’t revolve around Farrow’s Hannah or Caine or Allen or Wiest but Hershey, who stands firmly at its emotional core and brings it a substance and energy it might have been lacking if the role had gone to someone else. It’s a great loss for the movies that she never again got to play a part this good.


People were pleased but not necessarily surprised when Allen was able to create characters who evoked the world around him in films like Annie Hall and Manhattan, but they were shocked to find he could craft well-rounded and not-so-predictable roles like Hershey’s—or 27 years later, Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine.


Like a lot of people, I had assumed the ugliest decade in American culture was the ‘70s, so it was a jolt to be reminded that the ‘80s were actually worse. Most of the characters here look like they got their clothes at the Salvation Army, and there’s an elevated sloppiness to the whole culture that’s, in retrospect, kind of repugnant. Of course, some of this was unique to New York, which was just emerging from its nadir in the mid ‘70s and making the grunginess of midst-of-being-flipped neighborhoods like SoHo chic in an effort to inflate real-estate values. But the scene near the end where Allen comes across Wiest in a Tower Records, with its salmon and teal cutouts, glandular lettering, and Barry Gibb posters, reminded me 

we all would have been better off if the ‘80s had never happened.


Cinematographer Carlo Di Palma deserves great praise for taking the streets, storefronts, walls, and doorways of the older, decaying New York, the affluent shabbiness of downtown lofts and sprawling Upper West Side apartments, and the carefully cultivated disregard for personal appearance and making it all look beautiful. I doubt any other film has ever better evoked November in New York. This Blu-ray-quality HD download is an acceptable viewing experience, but Di Palma’s shooting style is so subtle that there are moments here that look flat when they should have an understated but distinctive pop.


Di Palma is also important because he helped dispel the myth that a lot of Allen’s greatness as a director came from using Gordon Willis as a crutch. By this point, Allen had developed a basal aesthetic and technique he was able to successfully translate from film to film regardless of who was doing the shooting, giving lensers like Di Palma, Sven Nykvist, and Javier Aguirresarobe the latitude to enhance his material without having to prop it up.


This is the film where Allen began to be accused of what was called at the time yuppie porn. There’s some justification for that because Hannah did help lay the 

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

groundwork for more unfortunate later works like Match Point. But the greater sin on display here could be called “assimilation porn,” which he paid a disproportionately high price for in the anti-Semitic backlash to his custody trial, when the seemingly hip but inherently conservative New York and Hollywood elites he showcased so well turned on him so viciously.


While it’s not possible to put Hannah and Her Sisters in the highest tier of Allen’s work, that’s not to say it can’t be a gratifying experience. Most of the characters are well crafted, most of the performances click, most of the presentation was satisfying, and he almost perfectly captured New York at that moment in time. Only Allen’s uncertainty about what to do with his own persona keeps it from coming together into a more fulfilling whole.

Michael Gaughn

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

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