Hannibal: Ridley Scott’s Sequel to Silence of the Lambs, Again Starring Anthony Hopkins

The dark shadow of The Silence of the Lambs looms large over Hannibal, the eagerly-anticipated sequel to the 1991 Oscar-winning thriller, which became a pop culture icon due to Anthony Hopkins’ mesmerizing turn as Hannibal the Cannibal.

It’s doubtful that even if Jonathan Demme had directed the film and Jodie Foster had starred in it, the artistic result would have been much better considering the problematic nature of the project–not just the book’s outlandish ending–that faced director Ridley Scott and writers David Mamet and Steve Zaillian.

Revisiting his notorious character, the man audiences love to hate, Hopkins renders an elegantly amusing and ironic performance in a movie that’s more likely to generate chuckles than thrills. Mixed reviews shouldn’t affect much Hannibal’s anticipated bonanza opening, and overkill marketing by MGM (US) and Universal (foreign) should help reach Silence’s blockbuster numbers, a worldwide figure estimated at $273 million.

For a whole decade since Silence’s release (in February 1991), moviegoers have been rooting for the return of Hannibal Lecter to the big screen to display his brilliant mind and taste for fine wine, not to speak of his flair for bizarre cuisine. However, there were many hurdles in the rough trip from page to screen. To begin with, Thomas Harris’ 1999 best-seller, particularly its romantic ending, was so outrageous it was considered unfilmable. Serious doubts also prevailed as to what extent the public would accept a more compassionate and suave Lecter.

It’s therefore good news to report that the nearly impossible task and insurmountable problems have been handled by Scott and his team in a proficient if unexciting manner, resulting in a perfectly watchable, sporadically entertaining movie. Aware that he can’t possibly meet viewers’ expectations, Scott has made a film that’s totally different in tone and style. Hannibal is more florid, baroque and tongue-in-cheek, but not as scary or involving as Demme’s movie. If Silence was sharply focused in its psychological thrills, Hannibal is a more diffuse and rambling film, a series of linked set-pieces rather than a tight narrative.

Ten years have passed since Hannibal escaped from custody, and ten years since FBI agent Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore) interviewed him in a maximum-security hospital for the insane. Living in Florence, Lecter is now pursuing his own interests, savoring the essences of an unguarded world. For her part, Clarice, now an experienced career officer, hasn’t forgotten her encounters with Lecter, particularly his unique voice, which continues to haunt her dreams and reality.

The script (more the product of Zaillian than Mamet) throws out the book’s climactic Hannibal-Clarice bond, instead steering the plot’s focus onto Lecter’s only surviving victim, vengeful millionaire Mason Verger (an unrecognizable, uncredited Gary Oldman). Hideously disfigured, with no eyelids and no hair, Mason is a knot of bulging eyes, twisted lips and blistered, suppurating skin. The solitary heir to his family’s fortune, he’s obsessed with revenge to which he’s willing to commit his wealth and influence. However, after several futile attempts, Mason realizes that in order to draw Lecter out into the open, he must dangle an irresistible bait, Clarice, the only person Lecter can’t resist.

Most of the movie is structured as a triangle of disparate characters situated in different locales. The premise of a free Lecter, walking out in the open among ordinary folks, serves Hannibal well, though in the original story, the incarcerated and bottled-up Lecter made his character more terrifying. Indeed, the best moments in Silence were those between Hannibal and Clarice within the asylum because they were imbued with tension and erotic charge. Unfortunately, here, it takes close to two hours for the duo to meet face to face. Prior to that, their communication is carried through letters, recorded interviews, and cell calls, tricks that minimize the suspense.

Even more deficient are the secondary characters, which don’t provide much juice or support because they’re one-dimensional. They include a corrupt Justice Department official, Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta), drawn into Mason’ vengeful scheme for promised money and power, and an opportunistic Italian detective named Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini), who follows Lecter in Florence and in due course meets a brutal fate.

Though certain crucial characters, such as Mason’s sister, were eliminated from the book, its grisly last supper, featuring a campy brain operation, remains in the film. Not as effective is the fleshing out of Clarice’s role, which is met with mixed results. As a character, Clarice had more shadings in Silence: the gentleness, slowness of learning, the receptivity to romance of a naive county girl turned FBI trainee.

Moreover, as gruesome as Silence was, it
boasted a captivating plot, centering on the battle of nerves of an FBI trainee’s with a diabolical psychiatrist-turned-cannibal in trying to hunt down a serial killer. The movie was also creepy and disconcerting in its sly hints of romantic attraction between Hannibal and Clarice. There’s nothing in Hannibal as scary as the sight in Silence of the demonic Lecter strapped into his grotesque face mask, or seeing his teeth ready to tear into human flesh. In contrast, pandering to the audience, Hannibal contains dark humor and calculated entertainment values that were missing from the original.

Hannibal’s overall impact will depend on how audiences react to the changes in Lecter’s character. In Silence, Hopkins made a hero out of the sadistic Hannibal, turning him into Clarice’s indispensable partner; rooting for him became a guilty pleasure. However, times have changed and audiences now-a-days may be troubled with a sociopath who’s highly educated, articulate, and affluent. In 1991, First Lady Barbara Bush reportedly walked out on Silence, protesting, “I didn’t come to a movie to see people’s skin being taken off.” One wonders how she will react to the sight of man-eating pigs rooting in the rot of decaying food and feces.

On the plus side, acting of the leads is accomplished: Hopkins takes full advantage of his advance age, playing Lecter as a lonely, world-weary, burned-out criminal. Moore also plays Clarice as a more mature and professionally calm officer.

Scott gives Hannibal the same arthouse treatment that Demme gave Silence. Sharply shot by John Mathieson in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio, President James Madsion’s farm in Montpelier, and the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, the film boasts the polish look expected of a Scott production. Judging by the ultimate result, however, the dealmaking and behind-the scene stories of Hannibal must have been more dramatic than the film itself. Which is another way of saying that Hannibal the movie could have never lived up to its own hype.

The saga continues: Dr. Lecter first appeared as a character in Thomas Harris’s 1981 novel, Red Dragon, filmed by Michael Mann as Manhunter, with British actor Brian Cox in the lead. That movie was a commercial failure, and Ted Tally, who won an Oscar for scripting Silence, is now at work on a new version of Red Dragon for Hannibal’s producer Dino De Laurentiis.