It’s been a long and extremely varied career. So far. From her first appearances in the sixties in the likes of Georgy Girl, to causing controversy in the seventies in The Night Porter, playing classics like Miss Havisham in Great Expectations and then suddenly being catapulted back into the limelight with an Oscar nomination for 45 Years in 2015, Charlotte Rampling has never been far from our screens. Lead roles, cameos and everything in between, she’s done the lot and seems to be having an especially busy patch, with another three films currently in the pipeline, including Denis Villneuve’s already much-publicised Dune.
Hannah, however, is on a much smaller, more intimate scale. In a role that won her the Best Actress award at Venice, she is the titular Hannah and the focus of the entire film. Made in the French language and directed by Italy’s Andrea Pallaoro, it’s also a movie full of questions right from the outset, opening with a group session of some description. It takes a while to work out exactly what’s going on. But that’s the smallest of the question marks. This is a film that demands you work out a lot of what’s going on – and what’s happened in the past – for yourself, using the clues Pallaoro gives you. There are other things you’d like to know and are desperate to work out but the director, who also wrote the script, is working on a need to know basis. And you don’t need to know.
The basic story, as the film reveals what it wants to reveal, is about how Hannah copes with increasing solitude when her husband is sent to prison. She has a domestic job, working for a wealthy young woman with a blind son, and seems to quite enjoy that, she goes to her drama group and that’s about it. She has an estranged son, with a grandson who she adores, but the son won’t let her inside their house. And, as time goes on, her world shrinks and life holds less and less for her. There’s much more to it than that, of course. This is a film that concentrates on the minutiae, of Hannah’s solitary life in her flat and also beforehand, when her husband was still there. They seem distant, hardly talking to each other, let alone looking at each other. It takes us a while to understand why. We never find out what he actually did, but a string of small but probably connected incidents point to be it being something unspeakable.
Hannah herself isn’t the warmest person you’ll ever meet. She cares for her boss’s little boy and clearly adores her grandson, so she’s fine with children on a one to one basis – but en masse, she finds them intimidating. And she’s not especially sociable, keeping everybody at arm’s length. She’s just not a people person. It means we have some sympathy for her, but we don’t necessarily care to the extent we should. As her solitude grows, and her world diminishes, her grip on reality loosens and she finds it harder to distinguish between truth and fantasy.
It’s a real showcase for Rampling, demonstrating her ability to speak volumes in the simple blink of an eye, in arranging flowers in a vase or putting something in the communal dustbin. She is superb, immaculate even, the centrepiece for so many lengthy shots, from lingering close ups to extended sequences of her walking downstairs to the metro. Pallaoro never rushes, always allowing us to absorb and increasingly understand what we’re watching, although there are times when that steady, unhurried pace begins to pall ever so slightly. The cinematography is as detailed and meticulous as the rest of the film, showing crucial facts in visual form so you have to study what’s on screen as well as paying attention to the minimal dialogue.
Don’t expect to be uplifted, to laugh or to feel good by the time Hannah reaches the end of her story. You won’t feel or do any of them. But you will feel full of admiration for a performance of subtlety and nuance, one that galvanises the film and which you cannot stop watching.
Freda Cooper | ★★★ 1/2
Drama | UK, 1 March (2019) | Dir. Andrea Pallaoro | Charlotte Rampling, Andre Wilms, Luca Avallone.