Hannibal (2001)

D: Ridley Scott
S: Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore

Though author Thomas Harris sold the screen rights to his third novel to feature the character of Hannibal Lecter before it had even been published, he must have known how unfilmable it was. It is not a question of the gruesome and sadistic violence it features, that is merely representation and only requires makeup and special effects (and the will is there in the wake of films like Snatch). The novel Hannibal brings to a climax the story of its central character, first glimpsed in Red Dragon (filmed as Manhunter) at the edges of the story, then moved closer to the centre in Silence of the Lambs, a brilliant psychiatrist whose contempt for those he considers beneath him makes him a serial killer and cannibal. The story of both the film and the book Hannibal has to do with Lecter's return to the spotlight after ten years in virtual hibernation in Europe. When Clarice Starling's career begins to go down the proverbial toilet, only the intervention of the good doctor's one surviving victim, a rich pervert mutilated under Lecter's direction years before, saves her from dismissal. She finds herself a political football, thrown back on the trail of the serial killer as much for the benefit of his vengeful victim as the FBI. As the net tightens around Hannibal, the question becomes who will get to him first and what will they do with him once they have him?

The most curious thing about the novel was that it followed the logical progression of Lecter and Starling's relationship from Silence of the Lambs and explored their natural affinity for one another's company. It wasn't far off a cross between a Mills & Boon romance and a procedural thriller, a story of girl meets monster through forensics and psychoanalysis and lives happily ever after. It was actually quite a ludicrous premise, especially set in the typically believable and well-researched world of detective fiction inhabited by Harris' characters, and the author seemed to enjoy sending himself up as much as telling the story. Its basis in Freudian psychoanalysis was taken to self-parodic extremes best left to an actual reading of the novel to see for yourself. The most outrageous and explicit elements of the dark romance have been excised from the film script credited to David Mamet and Steven Zaillian, but let's just say that the subtle question of the woman's relationship with her father (touched on briefly in the film) is hilariously literalised, with Lecter laying his ghost to rest (so to speak) and stepping into his place in her emotional and psychological life. Silly it may have been, but it did make sense on some level: a story of transference and disillusion in which the monster becomes preferable to the 'ordinary' man.

While director Ridley Scott's film of Hannibal is actually a fairly accurate transcription of scenes from the novel and follows the general thrust of the story, it lacks the richness on the subtextual level to hold it together. Underneath its surface there is none of the cheerfully moronic psychobabble which Harris gleefully poured on with a ladle. The connection between Lecter and Clarice has been sanitised and sterilised, almost entirely stripped of its disturbing psychosexual content and leaving it nothing but a series of interrelated set pieces about an all-too-literal manhunt (without the parodic irony). Scott also deliberately fails to enhance the visual relationship between the characters (who are separated almost until the end anyway), instead opting for the careful staging of individual scenes for their own pictorial and actionful qualities. The film occasionally looks quite nice, making excellent use of natural locations and with some atmospheric moments, but there is not great sense of cinematic cohesion which the arguably simplistic but certainly effective symphony of close-ups used by Jonathan Demme on Silence of the Lambs had. It sometimes seems more Tony Scott than Ridley, an impression reinforced by the credit sequence, which strongly resembles that of Enemy of the State and is flashy for no apparent reason.

The film is careful to ensure that though Lecter has more screen time than before and is more central to the narrative, he is less glamourous than he was. In Manhunter, the character (played by Brian Cox) appeared petulant and irritable when faced by the man who had captured him (played by William Petersen). But in Silence of the Lambs his calm self-assurance, quick wit, and cultured manner made him subtly attractive both to the character of Clarice (played by Jodie Foster), and the audience. Anthony Hopkins' mesmeric, Oscar-winning performance (and his rapport with Foster) played a large part in it, of course, and he returns to the role after ten years as if slipping into a pair of comfortable (expensive, Italian) shoes. He may not have been Freddy Krueger, but Lecter had an instant pop culture appeal which many found disturbing and which the makers of this film seem keen to address rather than exploit, which is commendable. In Hannibal, Lecter is revealed as the monster he is in a series of explicit scenes of violence and sadism (including a flashback to an incident only described in Silence of the Lambs). He is less sympathetic than before because he is also now free and his antics seem therefore more threatening. Though he is pursued by various legitimate and nefarious persons, he is more hound than fox (best exemplified by the scene where a pickpocket attempts to get his fingerprints). While this is all very interesting, it doesn't make for a particularly riveting story. With the central character flailing about like a supporting character without a lead (or a Dracula without a Van Helsing), the script can only follow gruesome incident with gruesome incident and hope it all comes together in the end.

The character of Clarice Starling has been even less neatly dealt with. Julianne Moore (The End of the Affair) stepped gamely into the (cheap) shoes filled by Oscar-winning Foster last time out, but though her character has been given a lot of emotional baggage, little of it is seen. We are made aware that her life is not going to plan, that she is manipulated and used by her superiors and seen as little more than a trumped-up has-been celebrity agent. Yet rather than allow this to motivate her character to find meaning in her relationship with Hannibal as in the novel, Mamet and Zaillian have fatally attempted to turn this to her advantage and make her all the more determined to be a good and moral person who always does the right thing. This makes her all-too ordinary and gives the actor little to do that stands out. Moore spends most of the film seeming to stare emptily into the middle distance, and with the exception of one scene where she cries following a botched FBI operation, she demonstrates little emotion. Her performance only reaffirms the subtlety of Foster's interpretation of the character and draws attention to the lack of depth and resonance in this script. The dynamic relationship between the leads is simply not there either on paper or on screen, and lacking its romantic sub-plot, the story on the whole has nowhere to go. The climactic scenes between them fail to generate any spark, and only Ray Liotta's amusing turn as the unfortunate Paul Krendler makes them interesting. The film's resolution is silly.

The most memorable bit of acting on screen comes from the inimitable Gary Oldman (The Fifth Element) as the twisted, vengeful Mason Verger. Though unrecognisable beneath repulsive but well designed make up, Oldman uses his voice wonderfully to convey the contemptuous, arrogant villainy of the character, and is brave in not worrying that his fans won't know him (and they won't). The belated confrontation between he and Hopkins reunites the stars of Bram Stoker's Dracula and is not bad, but it's too quick and a bit of a let down after such a long build up. Frankie Faison turns up briefly reprising his role as Barney the orderly (he is the only actor to appear in all three of the Lecter films), but this character has also been reduced from the novel in order to sidestep the book's most laughable element, a butch female bodybuilder (don't ask).

Hannibal is a disappointing picture insofar as it fails to really make something out of what was a dreadful novel in the first place. In another sense though, obviously, there is something inevitable about its failure. It does have the merit (as did the book) of being unusual and not simply repeating a formula. It is rather an attempt to kill off that formula and dissuade more the more obsessional type of viewer from baying for yet another sequel. Being a film by Ridley Scott (Gladiator), it has scenes which are visually arresting (though less than you might expect) and may well find favour with diehard fans eager for another flawed masterpiece since Blade Runner has been lost to respectability. It is doubtful though, because on every level Hannibal is a step down from Silence of the Lambs and both fans and more discerning viewers will find themselves returning there for richness and nuance which is absent here. Sensitive viewers will avoid it anyway. Horror fans will find it dull. Curious punters may find themselves baffled by it, though it may strike some the right way in they're in the right mood. On the whole it is difficult to recommend the film with any enthusiasm or say just who will find it worthwhile. It will probably draw a crowd on brand-name recognition, but I have a feeling that the general reaction will probably allow Harris to get back to writing books that take themselves a bit more seriously knowing that he's shaken off the lunatic fringe by being just a bit more tongue-in-cheek than even the most unflappable postmodern ironist can appreciate.

Goodbye, Hannibal: I hope.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.