Unfairly Doomed to be compared with Silence of the Lambs
The moment he signed on to film Hannibal, Ridley Scott must have known he would be thrown out of the window and left to dangle like a Pazzi. It was unavoidable that Hannibal would be held up against Jonathan Demme’s rendition of Silence of the Lambs,and inevitable it would come off second best. Silence of the Lambs is not just any old pot-boiler, after all.
So, instead of going head-to-head with Demme in the serial thriller stakes, Scott has done what any sensible director would do – made a different sort of film altogether. In some ways, he didn’t have a choice – Hannibal is a different sort of book altogether.
Inevitable though they may be, comparisons with Silence of the Lambs are pointless – you may as well compare Hannibal with The Remains of the Day – they both star Anthony Hopkins, after all.
Where Demme concentrated on the suspense and narrative, Scott explores Harris’ characterisation and the deeper thematic content of Harris’ writing. The scenes in Florence especially, dealing with avarice and betrayal and Dante’s inferno – all of which manifest themselves in poor Pazzi’s undoing – are beautifully shot and constructed.
This isn’t to say the pulse doesn’t quicken from time to time along the way, of course. But this time Hopkins tends to play it for laughs and not chills.
The American half of the film is much less interesting, and departs more radically from Harris’ novel. Sure, certain themes are reinforced – Starling repeatedly crosses bridges, (the Rubicon? the Styx?) and the steaming gates and “sulphurous” lakes of Mason Verger’s estate are certainly equated with Dante’s vision of hell from the earlier part of the film – but I think in this section Scott capitulates a little on his mission to avoid the cheap thriller, and inevitably it pales.
Julianne Moore plays Clarice Starling in a more one-dimensional fashion than Jodie Foster did, when, given Scott’s ambition, you’d expect quite the reverse. The contrast between Moore’s uneasy performance and Hopkins’ assured one is marked: The old boy is clearly having a whale of a time.
The ending, which departs completely from Harris’ novel, seems to me to sell out the film’s artistic pretenses in favour of commercial appeal (by the way, the “alternate ending” isn’t very alternative at all, and is even less like the novel). Granted, the novel’s ending wasn’t popular, but it was courageous. The film’s conclusion is neither, and the cynic in me wonders whether Scott wasn’t leaving the way open for a sequel.
At the time it looked unlikely that Harris will write one. But well done Ridley for leaving the door open
So, not perfect, but a fascinating movie – in parts – all the same.
Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore, Gary Oldman
Runtime: 131 min
Country: UK, USA