There’s always been a bit of the ham in Anthony Hopkins. Alongside the subtle, refined performances he’d give in films like “The Remains of the Day” and “Shadowlands” would come the bombastic, over-the-top turns he’d deliver in such hokum as “Legends of the Fall.” Even his cinematic debut–as Richard the Lionhearted in “The Lion in Winter”–was more than a little overripe. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that after a decade’s hiatus he should have chosen once more to sink his teeth ravenously into the role of Hannibal Lecter, the dear, degenerate doctor of “The Silence of the Lambs” whose superiority complex leads him to treat his fellow men literally like cattle in assuaging his rarified appetites.
The fact that his erstwhile co-star Jodie Foster chose not to rejoin him as FBI agent Clarice Starling, ceding the part to Julianne Moore, doesn’t appear to have affected him at all; in a reading that’s of operatic proportions despite its seeming reticence, Hopkins carefully gauges every change of posture to communicate the character’s fastidious disdain for those inhabiting the world around him and seizes juicily on each mordant morsel of dialogue. He’s clearly having enormous fun, and audiences, who always cherish a snappish, flamboyant villain, will happily embrace what is, if not great acting, a campily histrionic stunt that one can’t turn away from.
It’s a pity, therefore, that the rest of “Hannibal” isn’t up to his standard. The fault lies with the source, the disappointingly flaccid, preposterously garish 1999 novel by Thomas Harris. Harris is an exceptional talent; his earlier books–“Black Sunday,” “Red Dragon” and “Lambs”–were all taut and tightly constructed, almost impossible to put down. “Hannibal,” on the other hand, is flabby and disjointed, its tone one of Grand Guignol grotesquerie. The authorial tongue is, perhaps, meant to be kept firmly in cheek, but instead it seems too often to stick out at the reader in apparent contempt: “So you thought that last bit was ridiculous and repulsive, eh? Well, try this one…” Two talented scriptwriters, first David Mamet and then Steven Zaillian, have had a hand at trying to tame the book, and in streamlining things they have managed to rid the script of some of the tome’s more luridly absurd elements (the character of Mason Verger’s strong-arm sister, for example, and the entire subplot about that villain’s habit of abusing inner-city kids in particularly loathsome ways).
But for the most part their version is entirely too faithful to the original; the book’s flaws infect the movie as well. And when they do depart from the novel in any significant way, the effect is usually to make the plot, never terribly credible, even more implausible. In Harris, for instance, Lecter’s ability to elude capture for so long and live incognito in a large city like Florence is explained by the fact that he’d undergone extensive plastic surgery, so that he no longer looked like his widely-distributed photos. Mamet and Zaillian, however, jettison almost all of that, retaining only the bit about the doctor having an operation on his hand (to have a telltale sixth finger removed, the book informs us) so that an x-ray of it can remain the means by which Lecter is ultimately tracked down. This allows Hopkins to play Lecter with the same smug countenance, but it opens up all sorts of questions as to how so distinctive and recognizable a fellow could have remained at large without going into permanent seclusion. (The point is drummed home very strongly when a single visit to an FBI website allows a supporting character to find the doctor’s unaltered visage in a matter of seconds.)
Anyway, if you’re still willing to suspend disbelief, Lecter is living the high life as a scholar and lecturer on the Renaissance at a prestigious Italian library, where he’s obviously gotten rid of his predecessor in his usual fashion in order to secure his job as well as a palatial pad which apparently goes along with it. (His pseudonym is Fell, which was surely selected to recall the famous seventeenth-century bit of doggerel beginning, “I do not love thee, Dr. Fell.”) Meanwhile Starling, in trouble with her colleagues both at the Bureau and in the Department of Justice because of a botched drug raid, is put back on the Lecter hunt at the prodding of the politically powerful Verger, the doctor’s only surviving victim, who, wheezing through the most rudimentary remnants of a face that Lecter left him, is obsessed with locating the escapee and wreaking appropriate vengeance upon him by feeding him piecemeal to a herd of specially-trained giant pigs. (Verger, incidentally, is played uncredited by Gary Oldman under a load of latex that makes the actor look rather like the authentic Mrs. Bates in Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”)
Verger’s worldwide search apparatus eventually enables Rinaldo Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini), an impecunious detective with a glamorous wife, to identify Lecter and plot to capture him and turn him over to the salivating Verger in exchange for a substantial sum. This episode forms the picture’s entire second act, during which Starling essentially disappears except for periodic inserts wherein she’s bad-mouthed by Justice Department creep Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta), who’s in league with Verger; Lecter eventually resumes his old ways by dispatching the unfortunate inspector in a fashion as baroque as the Florentine surroundings in which the murder occurs.
The plot then switches back to the U.S., to which Lecter returns and where he attempts a kind of seduction of Starling. (In their last conversation in “Lambs,” the doctor had cautioned Clarice with the words, “People will say we’re in love.” In that context his quoting those lyrics from “Oklahoma” was meant as a grisly joke, but in Harris’ “Hannibal” they’re unfortunately taken to serious lengths.) The upshot of it all is that Lecter is eventually captured by Verger, and a suspended Starling has to decide whether to intervene in order to save him from an even worse monster. (You can tell that Lecter is preferable to Verger, not only because he doesn’t prey on children, but because he listens to fine music like Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” rather than the “Blue Danube Waltz” with which Mason perpetually surrounds himself.)
Without giving away what happens, it can be said that, with the exception of all that pertains to Verger’s sister, the screenplay follows the book fairly closely here, down to the inclusion of the final ghoulish dinner scene in which one of Starling’s tormentors receives his just deserts (so to speak) in a fashion that wouldn’t be out of place in classical mythology or one of Shakespeare’s more overwrought tragedies. (Whether it will resonate with moviegoers is more debatable. The squeamish will find it revolting, the adolescent very cool, and the more cynical pretty ridiculous, since technically the featured dish doesn’t look quite right.) Fortunately, however, the screenwriters have eliminated the book’s awful epilogue which saw the consummation of the doctor’s interest in Clarice; whether the ending they’ve come up with–based on an earlier scene in the book and, to carry the gastronomical allusions ever further, neither fish nor fowl in resolving the Lecter-Starling relationship–is any better each viewer will decide.
All of this pulpish nonsense is played out onscreen with considerable style, befitting the picture’s sizable budget. The Italian locations are lovely, and director Ridley Scott bathes everything in blue-green shafts of light for atmosphere, whenever possible adding the swirls of mist, fog and smoke he so loves to evoke a somber, threatening mood. But he’s far less successful at pacing and construction; the action is oddly lackadaisical and languid, and the big set-pieces (such as Lecter’s final encounter with Pazzi and the penultimate pigs-in-the-arena sequence which recalls, on a much smaller stage and to far more freakish effect, the helmer’s “Gladiator”) are very clumsily cobbled together. Nor, except for Hopkins, does Scott secure performances of much distinction.
Moore is a fine actress, but as written here Starling is a much less interesting figure than she was in “Lambs,” and the generalized moroseness that Moore brings to the role isn’t terribly compelling. Giannini is at his rumpled, sweaty best as Pazzi, but much of his segment of the picture has a digressive feel. Liotta plays a bureaucratic rat all too convincingly, while Frankie R. Faison (the only other holdover from “Lambs” besides Hopkins) is amiably nonchalant as Lecter’s erstwhile guard. As for Oldman, he does the Machiavellian shtick for which he’s famous with his accustomed gusto, but the heavy makeup obscures whatever else he might be attempting with the role. Hans Zimmer’s music score is too insistent, but Patrick Cassidy contributes an operatic duet based on Dante’s “La vita nuova” that’s rather bewitching.
In sum, there’s a good deal to admire about “Hannibal” in filmmaking terms, especially Hopkins’ performance. But while Jonathon Demme’s brilliant “The Silence of the Lambs” (and, to a lesser extent, Michael Mann’s 1996 “Manhunter,” adapted from “Red Dragon”) managed, like the novels on which they were based, to transcend the pulpish nature of their subjects, Scott’s movie remains, for all its superficial strengths, firmly reflective of it. And while those earlier pictures were intense, unsettling and genuinely frightening, this one is merely titillating. Based on an inferior source and, as an adaptation, more dutiful than inspired, it winds up being neither cinematic feast nor famine. But at least it won’t require a whole case of Chianti to make it palatable; a single pre-screening glassful should suffice.