He’s not coming.
To see the titular character (Charlotte Rampling) at the start of Andrea Pallaoro‘s Hannah is to see someone like any other. She rides public transportation to her eccentric acting class, cooks dinner, and enjoys a quiet evening beside her spouse. The film’s start is ostensibly a silent one with only the noises of her journey and the sounds of her teacher permeating the calm serenity of a life lived in routine. We think nothing of it. I personal wondered where things would go. I knew Hannah’s story would soon concern her coping with the absence of her husband (André Wilms), but I had forgotten the cause of his erasure. So I waited for him to die and her to grieve. Instead I watched them mechanically travel to prison.
This development is all the more tragic because we don’t know what he did to earn his sentence. We don’t receive any contrition on his part or sorrow on hers. The two have steeled themselves to this reality and decided to treat it as an act outside of their control. It has our minds racing to hypothesize what he did before understanding he is unimportant insofar as his existence without her stands. Pallaoro and cowriter Orlando Tirado aren’t interested in drawing up parallel threads to show how they both handle this new way of life. They want to know how its volatility affects Hannah alone. How does his crime mark her within their community—their family? How does she reconcile her love, guilt, and morality as a result?
It’s no surprise Rampling won Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival last year because she’s onscreen every second of the way in varying states of emotional unraveling. We sense her frustration throughout as well as her anger. Just as she acts in class, she must also act in real life opposite her employer (a mother of a blind boy who’s house she cleans) and frankly anyone else who crosses her path. Hannah attempts to wear this façade of normalcy despite nothing about her life being normal anymore. Because even if the albatross of what her husband did doesn’t cloud the judgment of everyone she interacts with, it does influence her own. There’s no way of knowing when its reverberations will knock her down. She must prepare regardless.
Whether it’s silence on the other end of a phone call or a mother’s plea from the other side of her door, we see fear mixed with shame in Hannah’s eyes. Whether or not we believe she knows her husband was guilty doesn’t matter because the world does without question. It’s why her gym membership can be revoked without warning. It’s why her son refuses to let her see her grandson. It’s why she freezes and shrinks into the nearest wall whenever a child moves past her as though she’s no longer allowed to be in proximity of youth and might very well be struck down for forgetting. We therefore infer upon what her husband did. We accept how its unforgivable stain would also be projected upon her.
And that is it. That is what Hannah delivers. It may seem slight in scope, but it definitely is not in execution. Pallaoro and Rampling peel a layer of artifice away to see a person caught in an impossible position without the ability to hide. Whereas most dramas would augment the crime and go for the jugular with contrived blow-ups in public and private, Hannah stays insular. It remains close to this character’s vest to capture her awkward ease in lying and glimmer of relief when she’s made the viewer of scenarios that play out like the one she wishes she could perform for real. It’s no coincidence that her class play is about love lost or that she reads a part about a husband and wife separating.
The whole is filled with such blatant metaphors and yet each arrives with nuance and subtlety. Nothing seems out of place or excessive because nothing is presented as though it’s adorned with flashing lights to “Look here.” Instead we’re entranced with Rampling, constantly staring at her micro-expressions to discern her reactions. We begin to piece together our own idea of what went on before the film began through how she smiles or squints, shifts or squirms. Pallaoro throws things at his character that are intentionally familiar to her because she isn’t someone to speak about what happened on its own. She’s too loyal of an old guard wife to badmouth her husband. Her identity is too connected to him to shed the weight of his crime.
She speaks about his unspoken act with body language instead. Her crippling anxiety when around children—even those she sees daily—says something. Her disposal of a secret she can’t bear confronting says something. Her talking about people she’s no longer allowed to see as though everything is fine says something. The plot therefore unfolds between the lines. Pallaoro creates a scenario and then removes it except for its impact on his lead’s motivations. It’s a decision that could have easily sunk all hope of investment and yet its success keeps you on the edge of your seat. You wonder how much pain Hannah can endure. You hope the truth will free her despite accepting that she sadly can’t stop herself from burying it to preserve the past.