US 2001
dir Ridley Scott
scr Steven Zaillian, David Mamet (based on the novel by Thomas Harris)
cin John Mathieson
stars Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore, Gary Oldman, Ray Liotta
131 minutes

Hannibal Lecter is now well on his way to becoming a franchise – and the more successful a franchise is, the more golden the golden rule becomes: “Just don’t screw up,” as the Broccoli family say to each new Bond director. As Hannibal’s status has risen, so his cinematic collaborators have tended towards safer and safer choices – he’s gone from a menacing cameo for a great director (Brian Cox for Michael Mann), via a show-stealing, somewhat camp supporting turn for a fine director (Jonathan Demme), to his current star billing, in a film directed by a hack (Ridley Scott) – a talented hack, but a hack all the same, a safe pair of box-office hands.

Anyone wondering about Hannibal’s next step – and an opening weekend of $58m ensures there will be a next step – need only listen to producer Dino de Laurentiis’s dismissal of Manhunter as “no good.” Dino’s threatening to go back to Manhunter’s source novel, Red Dragon, for a prequel. What odds that project ends up in the lap of one of the Bond boys – perhaps Michael Apted – when what the material is really crying out for is a David Lynch, a Darren Aronofsky, or, in an ideal, impossible world, the one and only Dario Argento?

For Hannibal is an explicitly operatic, florid, Italianate example of that rare genre, the prestige horror movie – Scott’s genetic disposition towards ad-land produces such chocolate-box shots of Florence and the Tuscan countryside you half expect some flashy new Fiat to come purring into the frame. In a way it’s apt that a film about a notorious cannibal should be tasteful – you can almost hear Tony Hopkins’s melting the word with his acidic, Brundlefly buzz – but Scott’s over-lavish approach leaves no room for such ironies. It’s typical that the best, subtlest, most unexpected visual flourish comes not from Scott, but from Nick Livesey’s impressive (and very Michael Mann-ish) title sequence, when Lecter’s face is briefly, subliminally suggested by a flock of pigeons on a grey piazza.

Scott’s handling of the main body of the picture is like Hannibal’s instinctively careful manipulation of a wine-glass – leaving no tell-tale fingerprints on the smooth surface, nothing to disrupt the seductive sheen. But no matter how much gloss Scott and cinematographer Mathieson apply to this story, the jagged outlines of its uneven structure can’t be disguised. First Thomas Harris wrote the novel – in a cinematic style, heavily influenced by the success of Silence of the Lambs – then it was adapted for the screen by various hands (the official credit names only Steven Zaillian and David Mamet), the ending being changed numerous times in a vain attempt to keep Jodie Foster on board.

This troubled background perhaps explains the cobbled-together feel of the climax, one which sits awkwardly in a story that otherwise glides steadily towards a romantic consummation – only to hesitate and pull back at almost literally the last moment. But not all the changes are to the movie’s detriment – flashbacks to Hannibal’s childhood are wisely jettisoned, and there’s no attempt to recreate the mysterious ‘memory palace’ he inhabits from time to time.

Otherwise, the script sticks closely to the novel – ten years after the events of Lambs, Lecter is living quietly (i.e. non-murderously) in Florence as the curator of an ancient library. He’s brought back into contact with FBI agent Clarice Starling (Moore) via the machinations of vengeance-minded Hannibal victim Mason Verger – Oldman, unrecognisable beneath waxy Elephant Man makeup, his voice an amusingly close match for Thomas Harris’s audiobook reading of the role. Jack Crawford (Dennis Farina in Manhunter, Scott Glenn in Lambs) is nowhere to be seen – Clarice is on her own, easy prey for corrupt superior Krendler (Liotta), who’s secretly working for Verger. On her own – except, of course, she’s got Hannibal on her side.

There’s not a great deal wrong with Hannibal as a movie – though, post-Traffic, surely the Italians could have spoken Italian among themselves, rather than this heavily haccented Henglish (Aston Villa fans should, incidentally, keep their eyes peeled for a Julian Joachim cameo in a Florence cop-shop.) It’s also debatable how much sense it would make for anyone unfamiliar with Hannibal and Clarice, if such a viewer exists. Like Scott’s last picture, Gladiator, it’s a thoroughly professional piece of work, with pro contributions from Hopkins and Foster-replacement Moore, who wisely underplays a passive role that stretches her talents about as much as The Lost World.

Nasty villains Liotta and Oldman are suitably hissable – and that’s about the level at which the picture is happy to operate. Both have all the chips stacked solidly against them from the start – how dare they imperil our hero and heroine? – and both get their just desserts. Liotta’s demise is a particularly hammy slice of old-fashioned grand guignol, the coup de grace supplied by, of all things, a soggy tea-towel. Such Dr Phibes-ish touches are more likely to evoke giggles than spasms of horror – not that you can imagine Scott being especially bothered either way.

February 11th, 2001 (updated 18th Feb)

by Neil Young
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