Michael Caine plays tough men. He has done so since the early days of his career, and rarely does he break cover to offer anything other than that. Even in his twilight years, Going in Style and the Batman trilogy, offered up a performance that does not suggest age has gripped him or slowed him down. It is a testament to his craft, and the ageism of the entertainment industry has yet to grip him. Still, it is with the timid and cautious appearances that he performs, perhaps, at his best. Hannah and Her Sisters, for instance, places the often cool, collected Cockney in a place he does not often venture. He is reliable and charming still, but he is vulnerable and frightened and riddled with doubt. Such is the way of a Woody Allen picture.
Perhaps the grandest Allen film of all, certainly when it comes to cast, but class as well. Allen has often been a supporter of the middle-class New Yorker, considering he was, is and will be one for his remaining days. But here, he attempts to barge into the higher class, and it is never clear why. He puts on fancy dinners for the family, he hides away with stern artists in the form of Frederick (Max von Sydow). Allen always has similar tropes, highs and lows, but it is the characters that are of interest, not their surroundings. Perhaps the move from middle-class trips to the country and neurotic worries of love and death is merely a recurring backdrop to what, at its core, is just another American-based drama. It is what Allen does with these themes and characters that is so fascinating.
The slight giveaways Caine gives to his infatuation with the sister of his wife is enough to set the scene. He blushes and stammers, erratic conversation follows as he deflects probing questions with generalities of course studies and relationship generalities. Take Sydow, for instance, the artist who has the intentions of Elliot (Caine) sussed out from the very beginning. “He is a glorified accountant and he’s after you,” he says to Lee (Barbara Hershey), and he has, in a nutshell, summarised the momentum of the plot. Caine is the persistent, awkward man looking to break away from his marriage. He fumbles and closes up, the awkward jitters between him and Lee feel natural, and that is the key to making these relationships and affairs so believable.
The usual rigmarole of opera, poetry and art makes the rounds, as it does in most Allen films. Sydow has a nice spiel about the death of television, which is best left unspoken for it would ruin the spontaneity and brilliance of his delivery to speak of it here. Allen refers to these great artists and their subsequent commercialisation often, but the reason for it is inconclusive. Here, though, it does make itself a bit clearer, especially when he is working with an ensemble cast. He uses the placards he so often introduces his films with as a way to dart back and forth from story to story. They are expectedly connected, but not as critically or clearly as they are in Crimes and Misdemeanours. They do not overlap, outside of the sense that they are all revolving around the same family. Characters come and go, but Caine, Hershey, Farrow and Allen make up the most of these stories. Carrie Fisher and Dianne Weist appear also, but they are somewhat forgotten about, cropping up from time to time to deliver a punch or blow to a lead. Such is the brilliance of a fleeting ensemble.
So why, then, does Hannah and Her Sisters work so well? It is possible that, as Mickey Sachs (Allen) puts it, “Cos he’s a loser. He’s awkward and he’s clumsy, like me.” The presentation of such a varied number of characters dealing with such broad and recognisable topics mean that, to some degree, any audience member can slip themselves into a story and relate to it. His characters are appearing in the real world, but they do not live there. Where else would an architect head out sightseeing his own work with two caterers-cum-actors? It doesn’t happen, but it is that weird, twinkly-eyed blur of reality and fiction that works so well for the streets of New York and what Allen wishes to convey. With Hannah and Her Sisters, he basks in the beauty of The Big Apple, and those that share such a feeling will be in for a treat. It is a rich film, one that relies so perfectly on dialogue, past encounters and deviations from the traditions of married life and how difficult it must be to keep it all together. That final line will linger on my mind longer than much of what Allen has written before or after.
I never do this, but please indulge me. Hannah and Her Sisters has a fantastic piece of writing within it that helped me out recently. I’m fearful of death and mortality, ridiculous considering I am a mere twenty-one years old, but it is something I turn over in my mind often. There are books I’ll never read, films I’ll never watch and places I will never go, and it is figuring out why that may be that fills me with fear most of all. But there is a line within, where Sachs figures he has to stop worrying and just engage with life. “What if there’s no God and you only go around once and that’s it? Don’t you want to be part of the experience?”. I suppose I do. But how do I stop “searching for the answers I’m never gonna get, and just enjoy it while it lasts.” Who knows?