Screenplay : David Mamet and Steve Zaillian (based on the novel by Thomas Harris)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Anthony Hopkins (Dr. Hannibal Lecter), Julianne Moore (Clarice Starling), Giancarlo Giannini (Rinaldo Pazzi), Ray Liotta (Paul Krendler), Gary Oldman (Mason Verger)
It has now been a decade since The Silence of the Lambs took the movie-going public by storm over a Valentine's Day weekend in 1991. The gripping story of an apprentice FBI agent forming an unlikely relationship with a viciously brilliant serial killer held in captivity in order to catch another killer struck a chord with audiences in a way few movies ever do. Five Oscars later, it has entered the ranks of the modern classic, a masterful exercise in both breaking and revering the tenets of the horror-thriller genre for a new age.
When Silence author Thomas Harris finally emerged with a follow-up novel, Hannibal, in 1999, the press was immediately awash in speculation about a new movie. Would Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster reprise their award-winning roles, would screenwriter Ted Tally adapt it, and would Jonathan Demme return to the director's chair? Alas, as it turned out, of that filmmaking team that won four Oscars among them in 1991, only Hopkins would return to take part in Hannibal. Demme declined to direct, citing that he felt the book was too gory, so Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Gladiator) was tapped to fill his spot. When Tally declined to do the adaptation, several noted screenwriters tried their hand at it, and the final product was written by David Mamet (State and Main) and rewritten by Steve Zaillian (Schindler's List).
The resulting film is somewhat disappointing, as it fully achieves neither the gripping, operatic tension of The Silence of the Lambs nor the darkly comedic effect for which the filmmakers were obviously striving. Hannibal is certainly watchable and it has a few striking moment of isolated brilliance; overall, it's fun in a perverse kind of way. But, in the end, its overall effect is negligible. The story, which tries to balance multiple plot lines, is too loose and flaccid; it never grabs you and brings you in the way those opening moments in the bowels of the Baltimore psychiatric hospital did in Silence.
The most talked-about absence in Hannibal is the vacancy left by Jodie Foster as determined FBI agent Clarice Starling. Filling her shoes this time around is Julianne Moore, who is certainly one of the best and most versatile actresses working today. I can't think of anyone better to fill Foster's shoes. Unfortunately, she is shackled by a screenplay that is profoundly uninterested in her character. For all the emphasis on Hannibal Lecter's character in The Silence of the Lambs, that story was ultimately about Starling and her transformation from a fledgling, unsure student who was ashamed of her meager background to an assured professional.
When Hannibal opens, she is already an experienced FBI agent with 10 years of duty behind her; her cynicism is deeply ingrained, and any sense of idealism is long gone. One of the first sequences in the film is a botched drug raid for which Starling is unfairly blamed. This sets in motion a chain of events that leads to her professional disgrace, engineered to a large extent by Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta), a smarmy, egotistical Justice Department official who is both a blatant homophobe and a misogynist.
Starling, of course, always seems to be surrounded by unlikable men (remember Dr. Chilton from Silence?), which is one of the reasons why Hannibal Lecter's charm and grace is so appealing--he's the only man in the movie with any manners. The problem with the narrative strategy in Hannibal is that Starling is so restricted by the men around her that she is rendered ineffective in almost everything she does. While in Silence she was constantly fighting to assert herself in a male-dominated realm (hence all the shots of her surrounded by large men), in Hannibal she's simply screwed from the beginning.
Of course, as the title implies, Hannibal is largely about Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Having escaped at the end of The Silence of the Lambs, he has been lying low in Florence, Italy, for the last 10 years. Posing as an art scholar by the name of Dr. Fell, Lecter is trying to get hired as the curator of an art museum when his identity is discovered by an Italian police investigator named Rinaldo Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini). Pazzi doesn't want to arrest Lecter and turn him over the FBI. Rather, he wants to capture Lecter and turn him over to Mason Verger (Gary Oldman), the only one of Lecter's 14 known victims to have survived the encounter.
In their encounter, Lecter had Verger flay off his own face with a piece of broken mirror. Now, confined to a wheelchair, his visage looks like melted candlewax, and one of his eyes is like a blemished black marble rolling about in an eye socket that is too big for it. Verger is incredibly wealthy and is offering $3 million for Lecter's capture. His motive is nothing short of the grisliest revenge imaginable: He wants to feed Lecter bit by bit to a pack of hungry, hairy, carnivorous pigs.
As the pigs subplot suggests, Hannibal is a notably more outrageous story than either of the previous Harris novels in which Lecter appeared, Red Dragon (which was made into the film Manhunter by Michael Mann in 1986) and The Silence of the Lambs. Because of this, the material almost demands a different approach, and Ridley Scott happily obliges by opting for a more self-consciously stylistic mode. He maintains an emphasis on close-ups, but he mixes in streaked slow motion and an obsessive emphasis on screens and monitors, zooming in on video images of Lecter until he is reduced to a near-incoherent pattern of dots.
At the right moments, though, he also pours on the Grand Guignol-inspired mayhem--one character is hung with his stomach slit open, causing his guts to spill out on the ground, and in the most infamous scene taken from the novel, Lecter slices out and cooks chunks of another character's brain from his opened skull and feeds it to the still living man. Unfortunately, there is little suspense or tension in the film; there's no mystery to solve, no clues to follow, no ticking clock to beat. Howard Shore's wonderfully foreboding theme music from The Silence of the Lambs has been replaced with a lighter score and an emphasis on classical music that poses an often-ironic counterpoint to the action on screen. The effect is to distance the audience from the material with a sense of dark humor and self-aware irony, but unfortunately it comes at the expense of genuine tension.
It is good, then, that Hopkins delivers an admirable repeat performance as Lecter, proving that the role he made so much his own was not a gimmick, but a full portrayal of an undeniably flamboyant psychopath who still maintains the ability to hold your attention. Because Lecter and Clarice spend almost no screen time together until the last 20 minutes of the film, much of the narrative loses the psychological edge that made The Silence of the Lambs so engrossing. The first time they speak together, in a literally accidental moment when they find themselves connected via cell phone, it is a galvanizing moment that reminds us why the relationship between these two characters is so enthralling. It's too bad that there couldn't have been more of such moments.
©2001 James Kendrick