All you can eat
I should say right up front that I don’t share most film critic’s general reverence for the Oscar-winning film The Silence of the Lambs. A good enough thriller, but saddled with a baroquely absurd plot and a central character, the serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), who could hardly exist outside the slasher genre. Lecter is a purely literary conceit: the amoral sociopathic genius, first playing Nero Wolfe to the Archie Goodwin of FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), then later playing Professor Moriarty to her Sherlock Holmes, with cannibalism thrown in to ratchet up the spine-tingles for a more jaded age.
Hopkins was once able to give human dimension to Adolf Hitler, but with Lecter, no doubt knowing he had an unplayable character, he threw subtlety to the winds and pulled every cheap actor’s trick in the book (I mean really, would an epicure as supposedly cultured as Lecter ever pronounce “chianti” to rhyme with “scanty”?). And it proved to be a good career move—after years of honorable obscurity, that reptilian slurp won Hopkins stardom, an Oscar and, ultimately, a knighthood. But a friend of mine once called the film The Slyness of the Hams, and that about says it as far as I’m concerned.
I say all this in order to give some perspective on what I mean when I say that Hannibal, the long-awaited sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, is vastly inferior to its predecessor. Where the original was far-fetched but creepy and suspenseful, the sequel manages to be both boring, repellent, and even farther-fetched. Hopkins is again Dr. Lecter, now living in Florence under the name of Dr. Fell (as in “I do not love thee, Dr. Fell …”) and giving lectures on Dante at a local museum. Having somehow escaped detection for ten years, he is nevertheless sought by Mason Verger (an uncredited Gary Oldman), a former victim who survived Dr. Lecter’s attack, albeit with no face, and now wants to feed him to his wild hogs. To this end, Verger has suborned an Italian cop (Giancarlo Giannini) and helped to scuttle the career of Agent Starling, played this time by Julianne Moore and photographed to look hard and pasty-faced (Jodie Foster, showing amazing instincts, declined to participate).
I haven’t read Thomas Harris’ novel, but I understand that David Mamet and Steven Zaillian’s script, besides altering the ending, is reasonably faithful; I offer this as comfort to the book’s admirers. This time, however, rather than the efficient and economical Jonathan Demme, the director is the fussy, pictorial Ridley Scott. Scott is more a photographer than a director, and developing suspense has never been his long suit (1979’s Aliens is the one exception). Like all his films, Hannibal is distinctively photographed. But it’s dramatically inert. The film needs a craftsman like Demme to sweep us over the story’s absurdities, especially since, like most sequels, it’s even more elaborately absurd than the original. Instead, Scott lingers over every image, unwilling to tear himself away from the blue filters, ceiling fan blades and layers of indoor smoke he uses to jazz things up.
Hopkins attacks the role with relish, but he’s ten years older and thicker now, and that lean-and-hungry look doesn’t come as easily. Besides, in the first film, where he’s held prisoner behind thick glass in a madhouse dungeon, the maniacal gleam in his eye made some sense; here, with Dr. Lecter at large for ten years, it only makes us wonder why he hasn’t been caught, and why anyone would enter a room alone with him.
If nothing else, Hannibal instills a new respect for the restraint and professionalism of The Silence of the Lambs. What that movie suggested, Hannibal shows—yes, including the cannibalism, with a character being fed a sautéed morsel of his own brain. That scene is merely campy, but a later one, with an unsuspecting child, is downright repugnant, showing how low Scott and company will go to outgross their original inspiration.