Hannibal (Special Edition) Review

The Film

Jonathan Demme's Silence of the Lambs was one of the most critically acclaimed films of the 1990s, due to its atypically intelligent script and strong direction. However, after David Fincher's truly extraordinary Se7en, much of its then-acclaimed skill seems somewhat diminished; while it is still an excellent thriller, it's hard to see it as an all-time classic. However, the one character in it who transcended generic restrictions was Dr Hannibal Lecter, genius and cannibal. As played by Anthony Hopkins, he was a portrait of all man's sharpest faculties used for evil, rather than good, but he was a strangely sympathetic figure all the same. Therefore, the prospect of a sequel was an exciting and interesting one, especially a Ridley Scott-directed one. The film does not disappoint.

The basic plot is set in roughly real time after the events of Silence, i.e 10 years or so. Clarice Starling has become a trigger-happy FBI agent, loathed by her superiors and unsure of her ability, while Lecter has decamped to Florence, in order to become a museum curator. Unfortunately, the psychotic, hideously disfigured, billionaire Mason Verger wishes to exact revenge, and begins a scheme quite hideous in its purpose and execution. Violence ensues.

On its release, Hannibal acquired a sort of 'video nasty' reputation, entirely because of the already infamous kitchen scene at the close of the film. In itself, it is no more revolting than Titus, Hopkins' other cannibalism film, but it's a remarkably horrible scene for a mainstream film. All the same, there is little explicit gore in the rest of the film, with a truly stunning evisceration scene halfway through being about the highpoint, with Scott instead concentrating on the thematic elements of the plot.

Essentially, Hannibal is an operatic film. It isn't operatic in the sense that it contains opera music to counterpoint violence, but it is operatic in the breadth of its emotions and its characterisation. Scott's visual sense, so strong in Blade Runner and Gladiator, is more subtle here, but every visual image is intelligent and symbolic. For instance, a recurring motif is of characters washing their bloody hands. The obvious parallel here is with Pontius Pilate being said to wash his hands after the crucifixion, absolving himself of responsibility. However, the characters in the film are unable to move away from their responsiblity for the moral corruption inherent in the world that they inhabit, any more than they are unable to resist giving into their base impulses. In Lecter's case, it is his unrequited love for Starling; in Verger's case, it is his obsessive desire for revenge. By the end of the film, tragedy will have visited all the characters.

At the same time, surprisingly, the film is frequently very funny indeed. As in Silence, Hannibal is witty and intelligent, but here his cannibalism is used almost as a punchline, with the dinner scene at the end reaching heights of wit that are truly inspired in context. Again, the most obvious parallel is with the Grand Guignol of Shakespeare's Titus Andronichus, or even with Webster's The White Devil; over and over again, especially in the Florentine setting, the film begins to resemble a costume drama, once again showcasing Scott's ability to create worlds for his characters to inhabit. Arguably, the scenes in Florence are the strongest in the film, with the second half slightly losing momentum, but the level of intelligence keeps the viewer's interest until the sick punchline of the final scene.

The performances are all terrific. Hopkins is wonderful as Lecter, bringing an almost camp quality to the role this time round, as if he was Vincent Price, and the film was Dr Phibes' continued adventures. Moore is inevitably less good than Jodie Foster in Silence, but the role is very much second fiddle to Lecter, consisting as it does of her mostly sitting reading computer screens. Oldman and Liotta are both good as appropriately sneering villains, but it's the Italian actor Giannini who really impresses, bringing a fatalistic quality to his portrayal of a decent man who is driven to corruption out of love for his wife, dooming himself in the process.

It's a terrific film, and (arguably, very arguably) superior to Silence of the Lambs, although it's an entirely different type of film in many respects, replacing the psychological horror of Lambs with a broader operatic worldview. Widely misunderstood by critics who didn't appear to understand that it was only a nominal sequel to Lambs, it is now time to re-evaluate it for the classic it so obviously is.

The Picture

A terrific transfer from Universal, as you would expect. The only minor faults were occasional grain in some of the scenes, and very slight edge enhancement. Otherwise, it's easily as good as any other transfer for a film this recent; colours are sharp and clearly defined, there is no print damage or other flaws, and the darker scenes are perfectly clear and visible throughout. Scott is well known for his visual ability, and this disc preserves his vision splendidly.

The Sound

The opening shootout appears to promise a test disc, as bullets fly everywhere and the surrounds get used to their limit, but things calm down considerably afterwards. However, the crowd and opera scenes make intelligent use of surrounds, and dialogue is as clear and crisp as you would help for. A DTS option is also provided, which adds some slight weight to the music and sound effects, but is virtually indistinguishable to all intents and purposes.

The Extras

In my last few reviews of big, blockbuster titles, I have frequently mentioned my disappointment with the amount of filler used, with 5-minute 'featurettes' that tell the viewer nothing, or even 30-minute 'documentaries' that are merely made up of endless clips, patronising voiceovers and fawning soundbites. Even the absolute best discs for extras, such as Die Hard, lack certain features that would really make them indispensable. All praise, then, to the Hannibal DVD, which should be used as a primer for how to make DVDs.

The sole extra on the first disc is a commentary by Ridley Scott. Scott is one of the very few directors who seems to genuinely enjoy and appreciate DVD commentaries, so it's a pleasure to listen to him, as he talks about the challenges of making the film, the decisions made in adapting the book and the casting process. While not perhaps the sort of commentary that a casual viewer would necessarily want to watch, this is an extra that will enhance anyone's knowledge and appreciation of the film.

The second disc is where the DVD really comes into its own. The first extra is a 73-minute documentary, which is divided into 5 'featurettes' (read: chapters), which deals with the film from its gestation to the premiere (complete with in-film footage of the assembled celebrities laughing and gasping) and party. It's a terrific effort, because it was obviously being made throughout the film's production with the DVD in mind, and so therefore completely avoids any kind of EPK fluff or endless clips from the film. Instead, virtually every question that a viewer might have about the technical aspects of the film are answered, with interviews from literally all the major cast members, including, surprisingly, Gary Oldman, who refused to do any sort of publicity for the film on its release. If this and the commentary were the only extras, this would be a 10/10 DVD.

However, it's not. Around 30 minutes of deleted scenes are also provided, complete with commentary from Scott. These are also presented in clear, if non-anamorphic, widescreen, and vary in quality between the interesting, such as Starling's return visit to the asylum, to the bizarre, such as a strange subplot about another serial killer. The next feature is 3 multi-angle featurettes. The first is a good use of multiple angles, as it is essentially an extended version of the film's opening shootout, enabling the viewer to observe every shot from every angle. The second is a storyboard-to-film comparison, where the angle options lead to a Scott interview, the comparison, or the storyboards themselves. This is as interesting as you'd expect it to be, with Scott as ebullient as ever. The final multi-angle featurette is similar to those found on the Se7en and Fight Club DVDs, with a deconstruction of the credits with multiple commentaries and angles, including, oh yes, a Ridley Scott commentary.

The final section is an exhaustive archive of shots from tbe film's production, which is moderately interesting, and a selection of designs for the film's poster. Some of them verge on the...interesting, and it's not hard to see why they eventually chose the design that currently adorns the DVD. The usual selection of trailers and TV spots round off the disc. Incidentally, every extra, from the commentary to the TV spots is subtitled, which is a pleasant bonus, and very useful for those who are hard of hearing.


The film will not be to everyone's taste, especially if approached as a straightforward thriller/action film. However, it confirms that Gladiator was indeed the resurrection of the director of Blade Runner and Alien, and makes this his fourth truly great film. The disc is of superlative quality, with some of the most thorough extras yet on a DVD. Unreservedly recommended (i.e one step up from highly), and I await the release of Silence of the Lambs with interest, if it is anything like as good as this.

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