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Non-Review Review: Hannah

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2018.

Hannah is a quiet, meandering movie elevated by a powerhouse central performance from Charlotte Rampling.

The second feature film by Andrea Pallaoro, Hannah unfolds primarily in silence – or in the absence of talking. There is dialogue, but it often seems incidental to the story being told. Much of the film consists of extended wordless passages, focusing on the eponymous character as she moves through the world. Dialogue is often perfunctory and functional, seldom exposition driving a scene. A lot of the sound in the film is ambient; a train approaching and then pulling into a platform, a cloth cleaning a gigantic glass door, water trickling from taps and faucets.

As the title implies, Hannah is essentially a character study. Charlotte Rampling plays the eponymous character, the film following her through her routine. Gradually, the film sketches out her world, first in broad pencil strokes and then in fine detail. Rampling anchors the film, conveying so much through her eyes and her expression, providing a strong emotional core to the film buried beneath an emotionally reserved exterior. Rampling’s performance is crushing and heartbreaking, and all the more powerful for its low-key nature.

However, Hannah is perhaps too low-key. Barring a bunch of clumsy symbolism, there are points at which the film feels like it might easily lapse into a coma without anybody noticing.

There isn’t much of a plot to Hannah, and what plot there is unfolds as a leisurely pace. Writers Andrea Pallaoro and Orlando Tirado take their time getting to the nub of the issue, refusing to front-load the script with stilted exposition or information dumps. Instead, Hannah approaches storytelling like peeling an onion. Each layer leads to the next, revealing some subtle detail or some nuanced shading. The picture develops so slowly that the audience seems to passively absorb the story rather than actively devouring it.

There is an artfulness in this. One of the most intriguing aspects of Hannah is how skillfully it communicates the finer details of its narrative through wordless passages and oblique exchanges. Even when it appears like nothing is happening, the audience is silently processing the little details that gradually accumulate. Even before the details of Hannah’s situation are articulated, the audience has (perhaps even unconsciously) assimilated the dynamics and relationships at play in this intimate story.

Rampling is a key part of this. It is a powerhouse central performance, perhaps most notable for its restraint and composure. Rampling’s performance is never showy, but is instead confident and assured. Rampling balances the demands of the script with considerable skill, providing a polished and reserved exterior while suggesting a rich interior live. It is a delicate balance to strike, and Rampling’s performance is as subtle as it is nuanced. It is not showy or flashy, to the point that it’s difficult to image cutting an “awards show clip” from her work here. Instead, it is consistent and thorough.

Rampling serves to ground Hannah, providing the film with an emotional weight that it desperately needs. Hannah exists at something of an emotional remove and unfolds at a glacial pace. There is something very cold and mechanical about Hannah, perhaps best reflected in the film’s very rigid framing. Repeatedly over the course of Hannah, Pallaoro sets up an impressive shot and has his characters move through it; they enter the shot, they leave the shot, they return to the shot. The characters frequently move through the film, but the film rarely seems to move with the characters.

This sense of aloofness and distance is reinforced by the awkward symbolism that permeates the movie. Hannah never clearly articulates itself through exposition, which lends the movie an ethereal and dreamlike quality. However, the film leans on a number of clumsy metaphors to reinforce its thematic points. While there is a lot to be said for the way in which the film uses repetition to reinforce the title character’s empty and hollow routine, but the film hits the same thematic beats a little too often and a little too clumsily.

The film opens with a shot of the title character screaming while attending a dramatic workshop, a primal cry from her soul which represents the character’s most overt display of emotion over the entire film. Lots of shots of other characters’ lives reflected in glass for Hannah to watch. These metaphors become increasingly obvious towards the end of the film. Flowers that inevitably wilt and die. A dog waits patiently by a door for a master who may never return. A beached whale becomes a particularly laboured metaphor. For a film that revels in silence, Hannah often screams its core themes at the top of its lungs.

There are lots of elements to appreciate in Hannah. However, there is something too ornate and sterile about the film, a sense that the movie has been crafted with a great deal of care but was never designed to be lived in; even Charlotte Rampling’s performance cannot breath life into the whole of the film around her. Hannah is a great performance that elevates a meandering and wandering film.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 2

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