Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
Studio Line: MGM

Brimming with laughter, tears and subtle beauty, Hannah and Her Sisters is a magnificent “summation of [Woody Allen’s] career to date” (The New York Times). Winner of three Oscars®,* and featuring a brilliant all-star cast, Hannah and Her Sisters spins a tale of three unforgettable women and showcases Allen “at his most emotionally expansive, working on his broadest canvas with masterly ease” (Newsweek)!

The eldest daughter of show-biz parents, Hannah (Mia Farrow) is a devoted wife, loving mother and successful actress. A loyal supporter of her two aimless sisters Lee (Barbara Hershey) and Holly (Dianne Wiest), she’s also the emotional backbone of a family that seems to resent her stability almost as much as they depend on it. But when Hannah’s perfect world is quietly sabotaged by sibling rivalry, she finally begins to see that she’s as lost as everyone else, and in order to find herself, she’ll have to choose -- between the independence her family can’t live with…and the family she can’t live without.

Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, Michael Caine, Barbara Hershey, Dianne Wiest, Lloyd Nolan, Max Von Sydow, Carrie Fisher
Academy
Awards:
Won for Best Supporting Actor-Michael Caine; Best Supporting Actress-Diane Wiest; Best Screenplay. Nominated for Best Picture; Best Director; Best Art Direction-Set Decoration; Best Film Editing.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16X9; audio English Monaural, French Monaural, Spanish Monaural; subtitles English, French, Spanish; closed-captioned; single sided - single layered; 16 chapters; rated PG-13; 107 min.; $19.98; 11/6/01.
Supplements: Trailer; Collectible Booklet.
Purchase: DVD | The Woody Allen Collection Set 3

Picture/Sound/Extras: C/C/D-

Among Woody Allen’s 1980s flicks, 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters may enjoy the strongest reputation. Of the 10 movies he produced during that decade, Hannah definitely earned the most critical acclaim, and it also scored seven Oscar nominations, including nods for Best Picture and Best Director. (It took home three: Best Supporting Actor for Michael Caine, Best Supporting Actress for Dianne Wiest, and Best Writing for Allen himself.)

Allen’s dramas generally seem bland and uncompelling to me. Exceptions such as Crimes and Misdemeanors exist, and Hannah was definitely better than siblings such as September and Interiors, but I felt it remained somewhat thin and lackluster nonetheless.

Hannah and Her Sisters follows the stories of Hannah (Mia Farrow) and her sisters. (Duh!) Lee (Barbara Hershey) lives with a self-isolated artist named Frederick (Max Von Sydow), an older man who became her mentor and teacher years earlier. Holly (Dianne Wiest) is on her own; a recovering substance abuser, she remains on the hunt for a man. Hannah’s married to Elliott (Michael Caine), and she appears to be the stable force that anchors the extended family, which also includes bickering parents Evan (Lloyd Nolan) and Norma (Maureen O’Sullivan) and Hannah’s neurotic ex-husband Mickey (Allen).

Thanksgiving celebrations frame the film; in between we discover a variety of subplots. Elliott’s secretly in love with Lee, and he endlessly debates what to do about this feeling. Eventually he takes action and an affair ensues. Holly searches for love and a sense of purpose in life; her acting career lacks positive movement, and a catering company runs into trouble when she has a rift with partner April (Carrie Fisher) over a guy (Sam Waterston). Ultimately Holly gives writing a try and also reencounters Mickey, who she very briefly dated years earlier.

Speaking of whom, the frantic TV producer experiences a personal crisis when he thinks he has a brain tumor. This sparks issues related to faith, and he experiments with other religions. He also keeps in contact with Hannah and their two children. Actually, even the latter aspect is unusual, for reasons I’ll leave a secret.

And what about Hannah, anyway? After all, she is the title character of this flick. For the most part, Hannah feels like a guest in the movie. She’s the rock in the family, the only one who seems to have everything together, and the others lean on her to a great degree. However, some of them actually appear to resent her to a degree; with all of their problems, they dislike the fact that she isn’t a basket case as well.

If only the people in Hannah had some real problems, the piece might have been more interesting. Unfortunately, as with many of Allen’s dramas, he focuses on minutiae that do feel important in day-to-day life but that fail to create substantial enough drama to merit cinematic interest. Actually, some serious issues do arise in Hannah. We have Mickey’s health and spiritual crises as well as marital woes and some substance abuse concerns.

However, the manner in which Hannah treats the problems renders them less than compelling. Largely starting with 1979’s Manhattan, Allen shows a fascination with pretentious and self-absorbed upper-class artistes. These people tend to come across as self-absorbed and pompous, and that side of Hannah is what often brings it down from its possibilities. Frankly, most of the participants feel like spoiled rich folks. They worry about their little bourgeois concerns and that’s about it. Allen delights in the little trappings that come with their lives, most of which veer toward obscure art, music and literature, and the movie often comes across as a lesson in how good Allen’s taste is.

Ultimately, Hannah and Her Sisters frequently feels like too much fake angst, and the characters lack the personality to involve me. Allen’s dramas usually feel like he’s trying too hard to be something he’s not. I thought that before I checked out the Woody Allen Collection 1982-1987 and the films in that package have reinforced that impression. When Allen attempts light and comedic works, he does wonderfully well, but when he goes for something deeper, he usually falls flat. Hannah seems like a decent movie as a whole, but it doesn’t achieve its goals, and it isn’t one of his best flicks.

The DVD:

Hannah and Her Sisters appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While watchable, I felt that Hannah offered a moderately weak picture that wasn’t as good as the other flicks in the new Woody Allen Collection.

Sharpness generally appeared good, as most of the movie seemed to be acceptably detailed and accurate. As I’ll note, interiors - of which there were many in Hannah - could come across as fairly murky, and these lent the image a slightly soft look at times, but the movie still maintained good definition as a whole. I saw no concerns related to jagged edges or moiré effects, but some minor edge enhancement appeared at times.

Colors tended to look fairly bland and murky. Some of this seemed to be part of the film’s production design, but I nonetheless felt that the tones came across as excessively flat. Skin tones occasionally appeared reddish, and the hues in general were drab and muddy much of the time. Black levels seemed reasonably distinct and dark, but shadow detail could be too heavy. Low-light shots looked fairly drab and a bit too opaque, though they were reasonably concise much of the time.

Just like the other Allen DVDs, print flaws caused some definite concerns. Grain cropped up throughout much of the film, and a mix of small speckles and grit also appeared. In addition to those typical defects, Hannah showed occasional examples of nicks, marks, and streaks. Ultimately, Hannah and Her Sisters remained acceptable for the most part, but it was nonetheless a fairly flat and drab presentation.

As with virtually all other Woody Allen films, Hannah and Her Sisters offered only a monaural soundtrack. This one also felt like a modest drop after some pretty good mono mixes for Hannah’s immediate predecessors. Speech usually sounded acceptably distinct and natural, and I detected no concerns related to intelligibility, but some definite edginess marred dialogue on a few occasions. Not surprisingly, Hannah featured few effects, but what we heard seemed reasonably clean and accurate, with no distortion. The music seemed reasonably clear. The highs came across as somewhat flat, but low-end showed modest depth. In the end, the soundtrack was average for its age.

Apparently Woody Allen doesn’t care for DVD extras, which is why none of the DVDs for his films include many. That is also the case for Hannah and Her Sisters. All we find are some good production notes within the four-page booklet and the movie’s theatrical trailer.

Though highly regarded by many Woody Allen fans, I must admit that Hannah and Her Sisters didn’t do much for me. While it’s one of his better dramas, that’s not much of a distinction considering how weak much of his work in that genre seems. The DVD offers bland and unremarkable picture and sound plus very few supplements. Clearly a lot of people really took to Hannah and Her Sisters, and they’ll likely be satisfied with the DVD. Others may want to pursue more compelling and rich Allen fare like Annie Hall and The Purple Rose of Cairo.

Note: Hannah and Her Sisters can be purchased on its own or as part of the Woody Allen Collection 1982-1987. The latter also includes Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose, The Purple Rose of Cairo, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy and Radio Days. Unlike packages such as The Oliver Stone Collection or The New Stanley Kubrick Collection, 1982-1987 tosses in no exclusive extras, but its list price of $99.96 is about 17 percent off of the separate cost of all six movies. As such, it would be a nice bargain for anyone who wants all of the different films.

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