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'Lamb' Leftovers: 'Hannibal' Lacks the Zest of the Original

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 9, 2001


    'Hannibal' Anthony Hopkins is back for a second helping, with Julianne Moore, in "Hannibal." (Phil Bray/MGM)
It's not easy being Hannibal Lecter these days. The old fop simply wants to kick back in a cafe near the Palazzo Vecchio with a nice Chianti and spend the hours fondly remembering the kind of dismembering when death was slow and oh so mellow. But a nasty billionaire who looks like E.T. with leprosy is paying millions to smoke him out and turn him into a Big Mac for three not-so-little pigs.

That's pretty much it for Ridley Scott's "Hannibal," which suffers from one fundamental flaw it cannot overcome: It is not "The Silence of the Lambs."

So if you want to see "The Silence of the Lambs" again, the solution to your problem will be found at your local video shoppe. It will not be found in any of the thousand-odd theaters where Anthony Hopkins's elegant, snobbish sociopath is playing an elaborate game of escape and evasion while occasionally testing new recipes.

This movie connects with its predecessor exactly as Thomas Harris's book "Hannibal" did to his "Silence of the Lambs": It is not bad on its own terms, and it is certainly engrossing, but it comes nowhere near the power and sordid glory of the original.

One must understand from the get-go that "Hannibal" lacks resonance because it is altogether a different type of story from the original. Where "Silence" was rooted in reality and had a detail-rich documentary feel that pushed its creepiness content off the charts while giving it a moral center, "Hannibal" is Gothic opera with black-comic overtones, set in a world utterly disconnected from our own, a world without a center.

Put it another way: In "Silence" they killed us; in "Hannibal," to paraphrase Bugsy Siegel, they only kill their own kind.

This not just in: Jodie Foster has been replaced by the superb actress Julianne Moore as Clarice Starling, the heroic FBI agent whose presence oddly agitates Hannibal Lecter's inner child. This was a business necessity, based on Foster's decision not to participate in the project. Scott and the producers probably could have done no better than the excellent Moore.

Yet her performance hamstrings the movie. Moore acts, Foster was. Something about Foster's physical being and possibly even her personal history – her tumultuous past, her near-androgyny, her pale radiance, her vulnerability enmeshed with her intelligence, her icy blue eyes (the same color as Lecter's), her strange angelicism – held the movie together. She was fascinating; you could certainly understand how a monstrous anomaly like Lecter could find her enchanting because you yourself found her enchanting.

Moore, by contrast, is all business; it's good business, but it's only business. She plays the older Clarice pretty much as Harris wrote her: a tough street agent, a steady hand in the raid van, but perhaps she's seen too much bloodshed, and feels too close to used up. But that's all. There's nothing resonant or charismatic about her. She's not a paradigm of innocence; she's not a symbolic protector of the lambs. There aren't any lambs in the movie.

The movie is also hamstrung by the structural oddities of the book: It feels at times like the first half of one story and the second half of another. In the first half, set largely in picturesque Florence, Dr. Lecter has emerged under a thin pseudonym as "Dr. Fell," a Renaissance scholar, bon vivant and epicure, who is campaigning to obtain a chair as curator of an elegant museum in that fabled city.

Why Florence? Well, because Harris likes Florence and spent a lot of time there. No other reason, but it's helpful, because Scott likes it, too, and really lights up the place's lush atmosphere and gleaming cobblestones and enclosed bridges and vaulted, ancient stone buildings. In this picturesque ruin, a rumpled detective named Pazzi (played by the great Euro actor Giancarlo Giannini, whose face has come to resemble Tuscan ceramics cracking in the sun since Roman times) has been alerted to the possibility of Lecter's presence and begun to see through Dr. Fell's false identity. But Pazzi, pressured by a greedy young wife, decides to use his police career as camouflage as he attempts to capture Lecter for the amusement of another recondite sociopath, the fabulously wealthy Mason Verger, back in the States. That will earn Pazzi a $3 million reward, enough to keep his wife in opera tickets and Gucci shoes for years.

And why is Mason Verger so ticked at Lecter? Possibly it has something to do with the fact that Lecter induced him to cut off his own face, and then fed it to the doggies. Arf, arf! This is why Verger now resembles that alien with the skin problem. Seeking revenge, he has conjured up a counterplot: He will feed all of Hannibal to some hungry pigs, feet first. It's not tit for tat, it's feet for face.

Verger, played by an uncredited Gary Oldman under a latex mask, represents the movie's curious transference of values. It finds forgiveness in its heart for Hannibal, because he is so cool and elegant and knows the difference between a '78 Puligny-Montrachet and a '79 Chassagne-Montrachet; this means, of course, it must find a far more repugnant villain. So as it progresses, we watch as Hannibal, despite his adroit handling of the greedy Italian cop (memo to cops stalking Hannibal Lecter: Stay away from high windows and short ropes), ceases to be the true villain and ultimately becomes almost a damsel in distress, while Verger takes over as the prime nasty boy.

It's a tricky transaction, handled deftly for the most part, though the movie makes one small fumble: It locates Verger's evil mostly in his appearance and in the fey, sly decadence that Oldman manages to convey under all that rubber, with only vivid eyes and a voice that seems pickled in pain; yet it fails to display him doing something truly evil. (Harris, in the book, dreamed up some doozies for Mason: Cruelest of all, he enjoyed cocktails made in part from the tears of children, whether shaken or stirred I cannot recall.)

Thus the second half involves a somewhat bizarre plot: The mega-rich Mason uses his political influence to put Agent Starling's career in jeopardy through the offices of a corrupt Justice Department official played by Ray Liotta, who is all wrong for the part. He's too boyish and lacks the gravitas and dead eyes of a true D.C. wonk-careerist. But Mason's psychology is astute: He knows that putting Clarice into danger will attract Lecter to her rescue. His minions succeed in netting the maniac where the now completely irrelevant Italian caper failed.

At that point, the movie gets pretty ordinary, ending finally with a gun-laden, one-gal hostage rescue mission meant to save Hannibal the Cannibal from the swine, which involves some routine gunfighting (Moore never looks as comfortable with guns as Foster did in the final seconds of "Silence"). And yes, the ending has been changed, but just barely. The book left our favorite fun couple together at last, in swank and purely apposite circumstances. Scott and writers David Mamet and Steven Zaillian have cooked up a twist to that deflationary spiral.

Possibly more important, the movie has a talker. By that I mean a scene sure to be the chatter-center of America come Monday at the office. It's "Hannibal's" dizziest, wittiest, most outlandish scene and also its most ghoulish and not for the faint of heart. This involves – hmm, how can I say this? Possibly it is every Washington journalist's most vivid fantasy: not merely a meal with a spokesman, a common if odious Washington ritual, but a meal of a spokesman!

What keeps "Hannibal" from reaching the heights of intensity is the lack of stakes. Nothing really matters: who lives, who dies, how, why? You are amused by these cold, self-interested but glamorous fish, but they seem to swim in an aquarium sealed off from human life.

"Hannibal" (131 minutes) is rated R for some truly gruesome imagery.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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