Hannibal
review by Cynthia Fuchs, 9 February 2001

It's distress that excites him

Hannibal begins by reintroducing Hannibal Lecter. More accurately and appropriately, it reintroduces the idea of Hannibal Lecter as saleable product. At this moment, the buyer is a physically damaged and obviously obsessed collector of things Lecterian, one Mason Verger (Gary Oldman, unrecognizable under prosthetics and make-up). The seller is Lecter's former caretaker, Barney (Frankie Faison), who has kept a few items associated with the famous serial killer (for instance, the leather mask with the mean-looking little bars over the mouth, or tapes of conversations), and is looking to sell. Verger, being a fabulously wealthy and warped fellow, is the ideal client, disinterested in social, legal or moral questions, and willing to pay top dollar.

Verger might also be the ideal viewer for Ridley Scott's long-awaited sequel, which is premised on the belief that fans of the serial killer are slavering after anything connected with him. The ad campaign suggests as much -- you've waited for ten years and now, at last, he's returned to you. He's put on a few pounds, perhaps, having enjoyed something of a sedate life in Florence, where he actually keeps a job, looking after art in a library, but he's still the consummate connoisseur of all things fine and expensive and he still cannot abide "rude people" (in fact, he says, he prefers to kill them instead of polite ones). In short, he's much the same as the last time you saw him, in Jonathan Demme's 1991 Silence of the Lambs.    The same cannot be said for Clarice Starling, Lecter's adversary-cum-love interest. The last time you saw her, she was an FBI Agent-in-the-making, smart and vulnerable and played by Jodie Foster. In the opening scenes of Hannibal, Clarice is reintroduced as a ten-year veteran of the Bureau, still smart, only a little less vulnerable, and played by Julianne Moore (whose West Virginia doesn't have quite the brittle edge of her predecessor's, but who brings a certain graceful determination to her portrayal of this complicated character). Clarice is reintroduced while she's on the job, specifically, in charge of a career-making-or-breaking operation, the take-down of an international drug dealer, Evelda Drumgo (Hazelle Goodman). That the dealer is a stereotypically evil hard-case is bad enough. But it's also troubling plot-wise that this business is set to take place in a crowded outdoor marketplace (supposedly in DC, but a Richmond, Virginia public market stands in), at midday, while Evelda is surrounded by heavily armed bodyguards and toting a baby in a carrier on her chest suggests that perhaps it hasn't been so well-planned by those in charge, including Clarice, but... the movie is clearly looking for a dramatic intro for our hero, and this would be it.

Even before the operation goes inevitably and terribly wrong, Clarice's authority is challenged by the local cops, who sneer at her girlishness and resent her cold efficiency (she actually sleeps in the van on the way to the bust, suggesting that she's adopted some of the deadly calm for which Lecter is so well-known). It appears that she has become an effective fed in the years since her first encounter with Lecter made her famous (early in the film she receives notice from the Guinness Book of World Records that she holds the record as the female who has shot and killed the most people, a grim form of notoriety, to be sure). But that only makes her superiors madder at her -- and when they have the chance to nail her for the Drumgo fiasco, they do.

Her punishment takes the form of a very particular duty, namely, reassignment to the Lecter case; as he puts it to her, he has "returned to public life." It's not long before you see that this reunion of Clarice and Hannibal is part of an elaborate revenge plot by Verger, who is the only survivor of one of Lecter's assaults (as a flashback informs us, Lecter somehow seduced the gay Verger to cut off his own face, which Lecter feeds to Verger's dogs -- the word "gruesome" doesn't begin to describe it, arty as its depiction may be). Understandably holding a grudge, Verger now hopes to bait Lecter by dangling Clarice before him. "It's distress that excites him," observes this measly mastermind, upon which he engineers Clarice's distress, over her strained relationship to the Bureau and bad memories of her "white trash" upbringing (and yes, all this is terribly familiar from Silence of the Lambs -- the girl needs to move on, already). The primary instrument for these machinations is a Justice Department wanker Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta), working for Verger "on the inside" in order to insure Clarice will be in the dire professional and emotional straits necessary to entice Lecter step up to save her.

In this sense, the film works as a romance, with Clarice slowly devolving into a damsel in need of rescuing and Hannibal evolving into a man of (admittedly bizarre) conscience and propriety. Their coupling doesn't take precisely the turn laid out in Thomas Harris' best-selling novel, Hannibal, as Steven Zaillian's adaptation necessarily omits and changes some episodes, but the movie flirts with the possibility of having them "hook up." For the first half and then some, the film splits its time between continents, tracking the activities of Clarice in DC and Lecter in Florence, where (paralleling Clarice's harassment by law enforcement types) he's being pursued by a Detective Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini). Poor Pazzi clearly has no idea whom he's dealing with, foolishly imagining that he will win Verger's three million-dollar reward, despite Clarice's warnings that the doctor will kill him. No surprise, this subplot leads to a grisly end for the hapless Pazzi and, finally, finally, the much anticipated encounter between Hannibal and Clarice by cell phone. And you've heard this so many times in commercials for the film that you're probably hearing it in your sleep by now, in Anthony Hopkins' unmistakable purr: "Hello, Clarice..."

Like the rest of the film, this scene is grandly atmospheric, Lecter lit from beneath so he looks like an old-fashioned movie monster, his victim gurgling and sweating in front of him, and Clarice icy and fierce on her end of the phone call. All this atmosphere, however, can be distracting. Don't get me wrong -- this is a beautiful movie, artfully composed by Scott and cinematographer John Mathieson, full of sinister shadows and filtered light, slow motion dream-like moments, and ceiling fans in almost every interior space, in the Italian library, in the FBI offices, in Verger's cavernous mansion, right alongside the multiple super-high-tech monitors he has hanging over his bed (why all the ceiling fans? I don't know, but they look great and make for an aptly ooky sound effect).

It's pretty, but there's something a little too precious about all this magnificence. In part, it's serving the hyped up expectations of the film, not to mention the high-stakes players involved -- Scott's coming off Gladiator, Hopkins is an Oscar winner (for this role the first time), and the specter of Silence looms large. Hannibal probably can't help but fall short of expectations, yet some of its particular failings are annoying. Slow-moving as his story is, Lecter is like an upscale Freddy Krueger, the monster turned into celebrity, romantic icon, and merchandise. Hannibal doesn't even use slasher film conventions to its advantage (there's a scene toward the end that recalls the infamous family dinner in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but the Hannibal version lacks the comedic outrageousness of Tobe Hooper's masterpiece). But with Lecter looking so clearly supreme, Clarice looks a little feeble (even swoony), and their relationship is depleted of its once-ripe tension.

Directed by:
Ridley Scott

Starring:
Anthony Hopkins
Julianne Moore
Giancarlo Giannini
Ray Liotta
Frankie Faison
Gary Oldman
Zeljko Ivanek

Written by:
Thomas Harris

Rated:
R - Restricted
Under 17 requires
accompanying
parent or adult
guardian

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