Woody Allen's 1986 film Hannah and Her Sisters is, for me, very much a mixed bag. I was tempted to rate it as three star only, but, on the strength of the performances from Dianne Wiest, Barbara Hershey and, predictably I guess, Allen himself, it just edges into four star territory.
The film provides another example of Allen's take on life, as mixed between tragedy and comedy - albeit without a clear demarcation in all cases. But, for me, Allen achieves this mix much more effectively in one of his film classics, Crimes and Misdemeanours, than he does here.
As has become Allen's trademark, there are a number of narrative threads running through the film. Actress Hannah (solidly played by Mia Farrow) and her two sisters, Lee (Barbara Hershey, in easily her best film role for me) and Holly (played by the much underrated Dianne Wiest) provide the central storylines. Hannah's husband Elliot (Michael Caine) becomes obsessed by Lee, who herself is suffering marriage ructions with her artist husband Frederick (played with admirable gravity by Max von Sydow), and the two embark on a passionate affair. Meantime, (ex-)drug addict Holly is struggling to find her path in life, rapidly moving between the various men in her life and numerous career paths, much to the dismay of sister Hannah. The other main storyline features Hannah's ex-husband, TV producer Mickey Sachs (played by Allen), who is also beginning to despair at life and obsessing that he has a terminal medical condition. Following some hilarious diagnosis scenes with various doctors, Mickey is given the all clear, at which point he decides he needs to find the true meaning of life, by means of religious conversion to catholicism (or maybe even Hare Krishna), much to the disgust of his Jewish parents.
For me, the film is at its best when focusing on Allen's Mickey character and on the superb performance by Dianne Wiest as Holly, a performance for which she deservedly won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. It is much less successful when featuring the Lee/Elliot relationship. The reason for this is that, for me, Michael Caine is hopelessly miscast, and just not convincing, as Elliot and certainly not deserving of winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar as he did. On the other hand, both Hershey and (to a slightly lesser extent) Mia Farrow are both very good in their playing opposite Caine.
Other notable performances are provided by Julie Kavner (as Mickey's co-worker Gail), Carrie Fisher (as April, Holly's best friend, though competitor in love) and Maureen O'Sullivan (Mia Farrow's real life mother) and Lloyd Nolan as Hannah's mother and father, Norma and Evan (respectively). Also watch out for John Turturro in a cameo role in one of his very early film appearances.
The film also has a typically high quality soundtrack mixing jazz (Cole Porter, Dick Hyman, Count Basie, Dave Brubeck) and classical (JS Bach, Puccini). Also, at the end of the film, it is notable that Mickey's faith in life is restored following his cinema visit to see The Marx Brothers film Duck Soup. The film actually ends on a positive note as Elliot is reconciled with Hannah, and Mickey and (previous girlfriend, now wife) Holly announce that Holly is pregnant.
Not my top ranking Woody Allen film, but a must see film nevertheless.