USA, 2001. Rated R. 135 minutes.
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore,
Gary Oldman, Ray Liotta, Giancarlo Giannini, Francesca Neri, Zeljko Ivanek,
Frankie Faison, Ivano Marescotti
|Grade: B-||Review by Carlo Cavagna|
ot since Darth Vader was sent careening off into space in his fighter by the force of the exploding Death Star has a sequel been so inevitable. Purists who hate sequels on principle may disagree, but novelist Thomas Harris did not just make possible a sequel to The Silence of the Lambs–he made one necessary. Though by the end heroine Clarice Starling had caught serial killer Buffalo Bill and quieted the screaming of the lambs, a far deadlier and more dangerous force was on the loose. From the moment the freshly escaped Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter signs off at the end with the remark that he's going to have an old friend for dinner, people understandably have wanted more. (Those who hate sequels should also remember that The Silence of the Lambs was itself a sequel to Michael Mann's little-seen Manhunter.)
Given that in March 1992 The Silence of the Lambs scored a rare sweep of the top four Oscars (Best Film, Actor, Actress, and Director) and is justly remembered as one of the best thrillers in the history of cinema, it is a bit much to expect Hannibal to live up to its predecessor. Indeed, Hannibal is no Silence of the Lambs. But that is not the only reason it disappoints. Superior acting, competent direction, and the fact that it's never boring make Hannibal a functional thriller, and its notoriously memorable title character makes Hannibal a little something more, but none of these things disguises the shallowness of the narrative or covers up the bitter taste of the ludicrous finale.
The catalyst for the return of Hannibal, who has been (in his own words) in a "state of hibernation," is one Mason Verger (Gary Oldman, uncredited in the opening titles and movie advertisements). Verger is, we are told, Hannibal's second and only surviving victim–a child molester to whom Dr. Lecter was assigned as a therapist by a rehabilitation-minded court. Hannibal's considered medical advice was that Verger should cut off his own face and feed it to the dog. Given the extensive background on Hannibal provided in The Silence of the Lambs, it's odd we've never heard of Verger before. Evidently Thomas Harris hadn't yet thought of a device around which to construct the sequel.
The hideously disfigured and insanely rich Verger harbors just a teeny bit of resentment toward Hannibal and desperately wants to capture him. He has made a standing offer for a three-million dollar reward to anyone who reveals Hannibal's whereabouts. When FBI agent Starling (Julianne Moore) makes headlines for leading a disastrously botched drug bust, Verger sees a new opportunity. Working through his stooge in the Justice Department, Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta, in a thankless role), he gets Starling suspended. (The fact that Starling is clearly on record trying to abort the ambush is apparently irrelevant. This is but one instance of bad writing–a way to place Starling's career in jeopardy and reassign her to Hannibal's case is needed to the plot, but at the same time, Harris and/or the screenwriters don't have the courage to tarnish their heroine in the eyes of the audience by making anything that happens to her justified.) Verger knows that Starling's suspension will attract Hannibal's attention because of the "special relationship" he and Starling share.
Meanwhile, Hannibal is living the high life in Florence as the interim curator for some sort of library of antiquities whose previous curator has, ahem, disappeared. Longtime Italian cinema star and Lina Wertmüller-favorite Giancarlo Giannini has a major supporting role as Pazzi, the Italian police inspector who comes to suspect Hannibal's real identity, but there's never much doubt he's hopelessly overmatched.
Still, Commandatore Pazzi's investigation accounts for most of the cat and mouse we get in Hannibal, which is otherwise sadly lacking, apart from a well choreographed scene in Washington, D.C.'s Union Station. More conspicuously, the multidimensionality of The Silence of the Lambs has been stripped out. The hunt for Buffalo Bill was nominally the main plot line of The Silence of the Lambs, but taken by itself, it's just an average get-the-absurdly-demented-serial-killer story. The fact that Starling must face an even more monstrous killer in Hannibal to obtain the clues she needs, while at the same time battling insidious sexism professionally, is what makes The Silence of the Lambs an exceptional and intensely psychological film.
The same cannot be said for Hannibal. Instead of continuing the exploration of the psyche of hunter and hunted, Hannibal fundamentally changes both protagonists. Starling seems to lack the toughness and resourcefulness she exhibited in The Silence of the Lambs. She is reduced to a mostly passive role. No wonder Jodie Foster turned down the role–Hannibal, as the title suggests, is not really about Starling.
As for Hannibal, he no longer seems to be the indiscriminately vicious monster we remember. One might argue that this is understandable. Being a prisoner in The Silence of the Lambs ironically freed Hannibal to be his true self, whereas as a free man, he must appear to play by society's rules. But that's not all there is to it. The Hannibal of The Silence of the Lambs was a mad genius who ate census takers and attacked innocent nurses. Now, probably in an attempt to gain audience sympathy, Hannibal has been turned into a kind of an avenging force, punishing only those who deserve punishment. His unpredictability, part of what made him so terrifying, is gone. His frightening intellect is still present, and he's always one step ahead of everybody else… except at a key juncture where it is necessary for Hannibal to make a mistake in order to advance the plot. More bad writing. (From David Mamet, State and Main, Glengarry Glen Ross, and Steve Zaillian, Schindler's List, of all people!)
The Big Picture
We could go on all day about ways in which Hannibal is inferior to The Silence of the Lambs. When a film fails to live up to a highly regarded predecessor so spectacularly, it's easy to criticize and difficult to praise, even if the film itself is watchable (mostly) and parts of it are quite entertaining. Indeed, the first half of Hannibal cruises along strongly, despite its flaws, until it weakens considerably in the last third and falls apart completely in the ludicrous ending. So we must give credit where credit is due.
Director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Alien, Blade Runner) is correct not to approach the material in the same way as his predecessor Jonathan Demme. Demme's style was straightforward and minimalist. He relied on the audience's imagination and unflattering lighting that made everyone waxy and pale to create a pervasive sense of dread. But Scott doesn't have two things Demme had: he doesn't have a superior script, and he doesn't have the audience's fear of the unknown to work with. So Scott paints in broader strokes. He imports his own lush visual style, using his trademark ability to make breathtakingly beautiful photography edgy and dark, as though A Room with a View had been shot by David Fincher.
Scott missteps, however, and falls into the common trap of confusing gruesomeness with terror. There is nothing terrifying about Verger's appearance, for example; he is just gross. Scott might have shrouded Verger's features more with the lighting, or perhaps given him a cloth mask, and suggested the results of Hannibal's handiwork, rather than just showing us an overdone makeup job. He makes the same mistake in the finale with a laughable (albeit difficult to watch) digital effect involving the, ahem, dinner.
Despite her the watered-down character, Julianne Moore acquits herself, even doing a spot-on imitation of the way Foster speaks in The Silence of the Lambs. Nevertheless, her performance doesn't change the fact that Starling is a shadow of her former self, still tough, but powerless against the machinations of the federal bureaucracy and her enemies. The feminist subtext of The Silence of the Lambs , which helped to make Foster's role so meaty (no pun intended), is gone, and the fact that Krendler hates women is an inadequate attempt by the writers to recreate it.
The star of Hannibal is, of course, Anthony Hopkins. What can one say about Sir Anthony Hopkins? He is, by himself, a reason to see Hannibal, reprising his most famous role with equal amounts of zest and reserve–which may sound like a paradox until you see the film. Too bad Hannibal's motivations are unclear and his actions difficult to explain, particularly toward the end. By not delving into Hannibal's psyche, the script doesn't do justice to Hopkins' performance–Hopkins had much more to work with in far less screen time in The Silence of the Lambs. In this script, Hannibal is a creature of fancy, not an embodiment of our most elemental fears. Not having any alternative, Scott goes along with that kind of treatment, visually portraying Hannibal as a mythic, larger-than-life figure.
The promise of Hannibal is to bring us into the mind of the monster who so petrified us in The Silence of the Lambs. The promise of Hannibal is that the relationship between Hannibal and Starling will be deepened and the conflict resolved, one way or another. But we never come to understand Hannibal. Closure between Hannibal and Starling is never achieved. Promises go unfulfilled in favor of providing stylish thrills. It's entertainment, but it's not terribly profound.
A note about the ending:
The following includes major spoilers. Do not read if you have not seen the film and intend to do so.
During pre-production, there was a lot of coverage in the entertainment media about the fact that studio and stars were deeply dissatisfied with the ending of Thomas Harris' book. The movie's ending was therefore substantially rewritten.
Here is a synopsis of the novel's original ending, written by AboutFilm's Alison Tweedie-Perry:
In the book, Hannibal takes Clarice to his mansion on the Bay (the rightful owner of which he has killed), keeping her drugged, but not to the point of constant unconsciousness. Knowing that Clarice's deepest psychological need is to please her father, Hannibal engages in some therapy, I suppose is the word for it, involving the bones of her father that he has dug up in West Virginia. Clarice has a conversation with her father wherein she lets go all the angst she's been holding onto relating to him. At the same time, we're learning that Hannibal is a cannibal because his sister was killed and eaten by deserting soldiers in Germany during the war. Hannibal seems to be engaged in some transference-type thing where Misha (his sister) will come back to take Starling's place in the world. Whatever that means.
Anyway, Clarice is in a heavily drugged state where she's highly suggestible, which is why a pile of bones can seem to be her actual living father. Hannibal and she have many candlelit dinners where they discuss all manner of things. One evening, Clarice (still drugged) comes down for dinner all dressed up, and Lecter reveals Krendler there. Things progress pretty much as they do in the movie, except that Clarice goes along without batting an eye, up to and including eating Krendler's brain along with Hannibal. Once Krendler finally stops babbling and is dead, Hannibal and Clarice retire to the drawing room where it's still not clear whether Hannibal is going to kill her. In fact, it seems that he will, until she realizes that his deepest psychological need has something to do with his mother and sibling rivalry and Hannibal being weaned too soon to make room for his sister. Clarice pours wine all over her chest, invites Hannibal to suckle her, and in so doing, becomes closer to him than he has allowed anyone to be since Misha was killed.
The book then skips ahead a few months with Hannibal and Clarice living the high life in South America. They have a seemingly sophisticated and committed relationship, though Clarice still has some reservations as to whether her lover has truly left behind his cannibalistic ways. They are, however, in love, and she feels freer and less troubled than she ever has before. The end.
Admittedly, I haven't read it, but the novel's ending sounds just awful to me. And yet, it still sounds better than the movie's ending. At least the novel's ending explores the psyche of both characters. At least Starling asserts some power, as preposterous as her therapeutic techniques may sound.
Writers, of course, have no obligation to adhere too closely to an original work when adapting it to the screen. In most cases they shouldn't, given the differences between literary and cinematic media–so long as they remain true to the spirit of it the original work. The idea of reworking the novel's ending is not a bad one, particularly because the idea of Hannibal suckling Starling's breasts is more than most of us can wrap our minds around, or care to try.
But the movie doesn't just deviate from the plot of the novel. It deviates from the essence of it, fundamentally altering the protagonists and avoiding the psychological examination that Harris had the courage at least to attempt. The movie gives us no clue to the inner workings of Hannibal's mind, and without that, I personally don't believe that the Hannibal we knew in The Silence of the Lambs would cut off his own hand to free himself from anybody, not when he can cut off her hand instead. I can see even the more protective, loving Hannibal we are given preferring to cut off Starling's hand instead of his own, given that with advances in modern medicine and ambulances only minutes away, her hand could probably have been reattached without too much permanent damage. The calculating Hannibal would have thought of all this–at least, the Hannibal of The Silence of the Lambs would have.
The gruesome brain scene is faithful to the book, but here the faithfulness is misplaced. As discussed above, gore is not the same thing as horror. Furthermore, some explanation of the drugs used by Hannibal would have been nice, too, because I spent the entire scene wondering whether what Lecter was doing to Krendler was even possible, instead of focusing on the movie. I've since learned that, apparently, when people have brain surgery, they are given special drugs to keep them lucid during the operation so the centers dealing with language won't be accidentally affected. How difficult would it have been to write a two-sentence monologue for Hannibal explaining that? After all, Hannibal likes to listen to himself speak.
In the movie, Hannibal is Starling's self-appointed protector and is the same person from beginning to end. But he's not the same person he was in The Silence of the Lambs, nor is he the same person Harris portrays in his novel, in which Hannibal is not so much trying to protect Starling as he is trying to get her in his clutches. In the novel, as ludicrous as it may sound, we have a transformation and a resolution. That's something we have a right to expect at the end of a trilogy. However, in the movie, Hannibal just flies off into the sunset. He is still an enigma. We're just set up for another sequel, and perhaps another. Don't look now, but Hannibal IX: The Resurrection is just around the corner.
Read why Dana Knowles gives HANNIBAL an 'F.'
Review © February 2001
by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2001 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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