To get the obvious out of the way quickly: Hannibal is not The Silence of the Lambs. By the same token, Silence of the Lambs was not Hannibal — and neither film is Manhunter, the 1986 film in which Dr. Hannibal Lecter debuted. All three are very different movies by three very different directors, all of whom bring their own style and tone to the work of Thomas Harris. To compare Hannibal to its Oscar-winning predecessor is senseless: It’s really the final movement of a trilogy, a fond farewell to a fellow Stephen King has dubbed the greatest character in 20th-century horror fiction.

Following Harris’ 1999 bestseller fairly closely, the drum-tight screenplay (credited to David Mamet and Steven Zaillian) departs from the police-procedural narrative of the first two Lecter outings. This trip is more of a Jacobean revenge play, each character motivated by wrath, pride, greed, envy, unrequited love or lust, and, in the obvious case of Lecter, gluttony — most of the deadly sins seem well-represented in Hannibal. The sole exception is FBI Agent Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore, in for Jodie Foster), whose motives are purer; still haunted by the screaming of the lambs, she is ironically driven to save another sacrificial lamb — Lecter himself.

Lecter has been targeted by former victim Mason Verger (an uncredited, unrecognizable Gary Oldman, caressing each syllable with a decadent drawl never heard on this planet before), now horribly mutilated after a particularly ghastly encounter with his erstwhile therapist. Verger plans to capture Lecter and offer him, feet first, to a pack of ravenous boars, a diabolical irony even Lecter would appreciate. The recently disgraced Starling (suspended after a botched drug bust that wasn’t her fault) must find Lecter before Verger’s minions do; time is of the essence, though, because Verger’s men are closing in on Lecter in Florence, where he has assumed the identity of an art curator, and a decent but desperate-for-cash Italian detective (Giancarlo Giannini) is likewise on his trail, mainly for the reward money. This detective has the dual misfortune of being the descendant of a famously executed murderer and being up against a scholar of Italian history.

There is not one inessential scene in Hannibal — it’s extremely plot-centered, and those who treasured the quiet pockets of dread and sadness in Silence will miss those things here. (I would’ve liked a little more competitive scenery-chewing between Verger and Lecter, for instance.) Hannibal hits the ground running and sprints for more than two hours towards its grisly, by-now-infamous climax. What the movie lacks in emotional tonality, though, it more than makes up for in operatic Grand Guignol and dark comedy, as well as a ghoulish parody of a tragic love story. Lecter, it seems, is mesmerized by Clarice — her pain, her strength, but mainly her force of will. In the movie’s major departure from the book, the feeling is not mutual; Clarice wants to save Lecter, but only to bring him back to a cell. The choice he eventually gives Clarice — and himself — in a key moment defines both their characters superbly.

It won’t be long before you fully accept Julianne Moore as the older but wiser Clarice, with nary a backward glance at Jodie Foster’s interpretation. Without giving a better or worse performance, Moore simply makes Clarice her own, giving her the weight of ten years of defeat and frustration at the hands of FBI he-man woman-haters like Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta), who takes every opportunity to halt her advancement when he isn’t crudely hitting on her. And she more than holds her own in her few scenes opposite the man of the hour, Anthony Hopkins, who could have slummed his way through Lecter this time, but doesn’t. Hopkins strolls through Hannibal like a man enjoying an intensely amusing private joke, which he shares with us alone. At times he’s so suave he could almost be the intellectual-savage version of James Bond, with Verger as his Blofeld-type nemesis. But towards the end, when Lecter tips his hand and shows the repulsed Clarice exactly what his true nature is (in a hilariously literal pun on his former profession), Hopkins shows us something new: regret and mourning for what could have been (and once was, in the book) and now can never be. He could devour her heart but will never win it.

Hannibal is a dark and complexly entertaining ride, highly generous to multiple viewings (I liked it even more the second time), but many critics, eager to express their official disapproval of matinee gross-outs, have weighed in with disproportionate venom — one viciously insulting pan, by Charles Taylor of salon.com, went so far as to compare those who enjoy Hannibal with Verger’s man-eating swine. Not everyone will be ready for this ride; the easily nauseated should probably stay home. But director Ridley Scott (redeeming himself after his oafish G.I. Jane and Gladiator) approaches Hannibal as a gruesome beauty-and-the-beast tale, in which the noble heroine keeps her virtue and her soul, while the monster battles his appetites and finds his own soul, single-handedly.

Explore posts in the same categories: adaptation, sequel, thriller

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