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Hannibal: Special Edition

MGM Home Video

Starring Anthony Hopkins and Julianne Moore

Written by David Mamet and Steve Zaillian
Directed by Ridley Scott

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Review by Dawn Taylor                    

The Silence of the Lambs was a near-perfect film. Its sequel, Hannibal, doesn't even come close. Why is that?

For starters, the source material wasn't as good. Thomas Harris' novel, "The Silence of the Lambs," was tight, briskly paced, and compelling. It was a noticeable improvement over "Red Dragon," his previous novel, in which he featured Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter as a minor character (it was also the basis for the film Manhunter, which is slated to be re-made as I write this). "Red Dragon" and "Silence" were structured virtually identically — the latter reads almost as if the first effort were its rough draft. Both were small, economically written thrillers that had been meticulously researched.

The third book in the quasi-series, "Hannibal," is a different animal altogether. Five-hundred-plus pages in length, it reads as if Harris wrote it as the outcome of some sort of deep-seated grudge. An underlying, "You want another Lecter book? Oh, I'll write you a fucking Lecter book!" attitude infects every chapter of the bloated work, and it's impossible to read its controversial ending without being aware that Hollywood had already optioned the property for a movie; you can almost hear Harris laughing to himself, writing an ending that he knows will never, ever be filmable in a million years, as he gleefully pockets their money.

The story picks up Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore, taking over for the wisely absent Jodie Foster) ten years after Silence, her FBI career less illustrious than she had hoped. In the book the reasons are made crystal clear: Her early fame as a rookie with the Buffalo Bill case gained her resentment from her more seasoned colleagues, and her spurning of Agent Paul Krendler's (Ray Liotta) advances caused him to sabotage her career as he continued upward into a more senior position. In the movie, we get no such explanation (although the Krendler thing is tossed off in a late scene). Here, we just see her take the blame for a shoot-out that goes wrong, and this incident alone is supposed to be enough to destroy her lifelong dreams. As written by Harris, it had taken a decade for her to become disillusioned; in Steve Zaillian's screenplay, it takes about three days — and it's hardly convincing.

Demoted to a desk job, she soon receives a letter from Dr. Lecter. Hannibal's living in Florence, Italy, working as an art curator, and he's made it a point to stay on top of Clarice's doings. He's also made it to the Ten Most Wanted List, and is avidly pursued by one of his previous victims, a billionaire named Mason Verger (Gary Oldman, uncredited — but his identity was no secret by the time the film opened.) Verger was a child molester assigned to Dr. Lecter for therapy; Lecter drugged him and encouraged him to cut off his face and feed it to his dogs. "It seemed like a good idea at the time," he says, reminiscing. Verger has had his lackeys training a special breed of giant killer hog to develop a taste for human flesh, because he plans to feed Lecter to them — starting with his feet, so he can hear his screams. ("Ha ha ha ha ha!" laughs Thomas Harris. "Killer hogs! A guy with no face! Make a movie out of this, you bastards! Hee hee hee hee hee!")

Meanwhile (this is a 500-page book, after all), a Florence detective named Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini) has become suspicious of the art curator, figures out that he's Lecter, and decides to turn him over him to Verger for a $3 million reward. Once again, the novel gave us a lot of background on Pazzi — he had been a hotshot detective but blew a big case and his reputation was tarnished, his ego was damaged and he felt he had to still lavish gifts on his beautiful, much-younger wife. His financial straits inspired him to go after the money, but his yearning to regain his star status as a cop made him continue to pursue Lecter too closely, taking ridiculous risks because he needed, desperately, to get credit for catching Lecter himself. In the film, he just seems like a sad-eyed clown who doesn't know when to walk away, taking foolish chances when he really should know better.

So Clarice tracks Lecter down — which was his plan all along, of course — but he flees Italy to return to the States, stalks Clarice as she, in turn, looks for him, Verger catches him, he gets away, blahblahblahblah — you still with me? — then we get to the big gross-out dinner scene and the finale.

As stated previously, part of the problem lies in the source material. The book is structured in three acts, with the Pazzi storyline taking up most of the overlong first third. It does here, as well — it's not resolved until one hour and fifteen minutes into the film (which runs, by the way, two hours and eleven minutes). This imbalance is the story's biggest flaw — we want to know about Clarice and Hannibal, dammit, not this Italian guy! ("Ho ho ho ho!" chortles Thomas Harris. "Hee hee hee!")

Another fundamental problem is in the re-working of the characters themselves. The single greatest strength of The Silence of the Lambs is the character of Clarice Starling. She's scrappy and brave, and she overcomes amazing obstacles in a believable, very human way. We believe her fear, and we applaud her rallying to get over it to save the day. The Clarice of Silence is outstanding because she's never a damsel in distress, she isn't a vixen, she never uses her sexuality to gain anything — she's a straightforward hero. So "Hannibal," the book and the film, is something of a betrayal of that character. Ten years down the road ... where is Clarice's strength? When she's made the scapegoat for the fish market shooting, she doesn't even defend herself or explain what really happened — she just takes it and looks sad. When she goes after Lecter on Verger's farm, she ends up getting knocked out and carried off by Lecter, putting her squarely into the Chick in Jeopardy role. And as for Hannibal himself ... well, the book, at least, gave us a chance to explore his inner workings (Harris's depiction of the inside of Lecter's mind as "architecture," a series of rooms that he would spend time in, was well-written and evocative) but in the film we don't get that. We get Hannibal as a refined gent, a snappy dresser, and a lovelorn sap. He's not scary, though. Not remotely.

Finally, the biggest reason that Hannibal doesn't work is director Ridley Scott. In watching The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal back-to-back, it's painfully obvious why one works and the other doesn't — point of view. Jonathan Demme's Silence forces the audience to experience the story through Clarice, with the camera consistently at eye level or lower, an overwhelming number of intense close-ups, and at least one shot in every segment with a character looking directly into the camera as they speak to Clarice (i.e., the viewer). So the tension is visceral — you're there, in the story, one hundred percent. Scott came to Hannibal directly from making Gladiator, and his eye was still accustomed to looking at big shots of big coliseums with small people; his film is curiously detached, with lots of scenes shot from rooftops, from across rivers, from hundreds of yards away. Demme gave us tight shots of the actors faces, so that we could read every emotion that coursed through them and by extension experience that emotion, too; Scott gives us piazzas and scenery, and artistic shots of set details. It's stupendously uninvolving.

Julianne Moore, as usual, is very good, although she's not given a lot of actorly stuff to do. Anthony Hopkins seems to have decided that he's now a Movie Star and doesn't need to do the hard work — unlike Silence, he eschews serious acting and just plays Hannibal as, well, Anthony Hopkins with a nice paycheck in his pocket. Giancarlo Giannini is sinfully wasted, and Ray Liotta is well-cast but gets little to do (other than getting served for dinner). But at least Thomas Harris got bucketloads of cash and a few good laughs out of the experience. I'm happy for him.

Supplements ... and a Nice Chianti.

Oh boy, are there supplements. The two-disc Hannibal: Special Edition features enough supplements that you may forget what a dog the movie is. Maybe.

— Dawn Taylor

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