Most romantic film #50: Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

At a time when I was living in New York City but planning to leave, I saw this film and remembered why I loved the city. In many ways, this film’s love affair is actually about Allen’s continuing love affair with New York and especially Manhattan that informs all his work of the 1980s.

The story itself is built around the three sisters played by Mia Farrow, Dianne Wiest and Barbara Hershey. Drawing on Chekhov’s play as inspiration, Allen tells the story of these three sisters, their parents, their husbands, ex-husbands and lovers using an wonderful ensemble cast and the background of New York’s architecture and street life as the foundation.

Along with Annie Hall and Manhattan, I’d place this as the third and final chapter of Allen’s big trilogy. Hannah (Farrow) is married to Elliot (Michael Caine) and divorced from Mickey (Allen). She is a successful actress, wife and mother who seems to have it all together, the heart of her extended family. Middle sister Holly (Wiest) is disconnected, single and struggling as an actress and with sobriety… sort of. Youngest sister Lee (Hershey) lives with a brilliant artist (Max von Sydow) and has an affiar with Hannah’s husband Elliot.

Though divorced from Mickey, Hannah shares children with him and supports him through various “crises” of hypochondria and existentialism. Eventually, Mickey and Holly get together as a couple, once both grow up.

The womens’ parents are played by Margaret Sullivan and Lloyd Nolan, a tempestuous couple who have always created drama in the girls’ lives through affairs, drinking, and splitting up/getting together dynamics. (Sullivan is Farrow’s bio mother, by the way, and the former Jane of the Weissmuller Tarzan films)

The characters talk about poetry, films, books, art, music, theatre and architecture, but the real story is in the interactions of the characters and the everyday dialogue that Allen excelled at in the 1980s, as he did in bringing together ensemble casts of startling breadth and depth.

Farrow is really, really fine here, as the complex, strong woman who seems to be in control of everything but is not, while this is one of the first films where Wiest’s skills are showcased. Even Daniel Stern, for example, in a single scene is simple brilliant as the rock star looking for a painting to match his sofa…

In this era of his filmmaking, Allen’s compassion for his characters and skill at directing fine actors is consistently on display. And if you love New York City or, on the other hand, have never understood it’s appeal, see this film and enjoy the beauty of the city and its marvels spread out for you.

Warning: this is not Gossip Girl’s Manhattan, folks.


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