Anthony Hopkins is on the loose again this weekend in The Rite, and this reminds us of how his career changed when he adopted Hannibal Lecter as his avatar. This review of Hannibal, published at Film.com in 2001 (the movie opened almost exactly ten years after The Silence of the Lambs), observes the way Hopkins, and Lecter, have grown. As grotesque as the movie gets in its subject, and acknowledging the void of the Hannibal-Clarice relationship as a huge letdown, I do like aspects of this picture, mostly the idea of Lecter living his life as an exquisite Continental who could easily have wandered in from a Merchant Ivory adaptation of a Henry James novel; except for his personality quirks, he might be consulting on the preservation of medieval art, or opening his own wine shop. (If only he could refrain from making fun of the way Americans pronounce “Chianti.”)–R.H.
In The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter looked like a sleek, streamlined predator, an eel; with his face hollow and his hair slicked back, he was all eyes and teeth. Much has changed in Hannibal. Ten years have passed, both in the fictional life of Lecter and since production of The Silence of the Lambs. Anthony Hopkins looks stouter, older, but handsomer; his (that is, Lecter’s) dentist-drill intensity has changed to a more relaxed movement through the world. The prison jumpsuit is gone, replaced by Italian threads, for Lecter has been living in Florence for some time, like a puttering old gelato-nibbling esthete. In one of our first glimpses of him, he is a roundish fellow, chicly dressed with a broad-brimmed fedora, and for a moment we might be forgiven for thinking we have just seen Truman Capote visiting the continent.
In short, Hannibal (and Hannibal) has become decadent. There was a steely simplicity to The Silence of the Lambs, which arranged itself around a series of face-to-face encounters between Hopkins’ Lecter and Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling, fledgling FBI agent. Hannibal is more complicated, more outrageous, less controlled in every way. Jodie Foster having opted out of the sequel, Julianne Moore now plays Clarice, as though in a kind of trance. When she is set up for a fall by the Bureau, Lecter gets wind of the plan and comes, in a way, to her rescue.
But the movie takes a while to get there. The entire (quite engrossing) middle section is taken up with an Italian policeman’s efforts to land a huge reward by catching Lecter. He is played by Giancarlo Gianinni, that marvelous relic of past arthouse hits, his skin seemingly baked by Italian sun and cigarette smoke. The reward has been established by the hideously disfigured Mason Verger (Gary Oldman, unbilled), and when we use the word “hideous” in describing this movie’s effects, please take it as gospel. Billionaire Verger’s connection to Lecter is that he cut off his own face while in Dr. Lecter’s presence (and fed it to a dog—Lecter went hungry?).
The film also features a public disembowling, man-eating pigs, and a climactic “meal” that certainly qualifies as one of the most audaciously revolting sequences ever to find its way into a mainstream movie. Director Ridley Scott turns away from some of this, but he serves up many of the horrors with a kind of mirthful directness. Thanks to his facility with visual storytelling, Scott nails many moments, including the film’s opening: we watch three men speaking calmly, sitting in a great room, seen from longshot in a stately proscenium-style composition. Abruptly, in mid-conversation, Scott cuts to a huge close-up of one of the men—and it’s Verger, in all his faceless awfulness. If that doesn’t set the tone, nothing will.
Hannibal’s biggest failing is not in its grossness, nor in Scott’s slick approach. It’s in the absence of that central connection from The Silence of the Lambs, the mysterious bond between Clarice and Dr. Lecter, in which two people met in an unwholesome but profound way. Thanks to the plot of Thomas Harris’s sequel, they are kept apart, and we must take their connection on faith. Because we remember the first movie, when Lecter first purrs “Hello Clarice” into a cell phone from half a world away, it’s a truly shivery moment. But its owes its power to that earlier, greater film.