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“Dr. Fell, do you believe a man could become so obsessed with a woman from a single encounter?”
“Could he daily feel a stab of hunger for her, and find nourishment in the very sight of her? I think so. Would she see through the bars of his plight and ache for him?”
Whenever I tell people I prefer Hannibal to The Silence of the Lambs, they tend to assume I’m either mad or joking. Either way, they never look at me quite the same way again. Mad though I may be, I’m certainly not joking, and I suspect the reason for my preference for this Grand Guignol 2001 follow-up lies in my own individual tastes. Jonathan Demme’s offering, fine film though it is, always struck me as being slightly ashamed of its identity as a horror film: whether consciously or otherwise, it seemed to go to great pains to disavow the horror trappings of the material and present itself as something more refined, something less distasteful... a psychological thriller, as it were. With Hannibal, on the other hand, Ridley Scott goes the whole hog, to use a rather fitting phrase, embracing what is ultimately a deliciously twisted fairytale, a Beauty and the Beast for the modern era.
More a continuation of the same characters than a sequel in the truest sense of the word, the film picks up around a decade after the events of The Silence of the Lambs. Brilliant madman Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), having made good his escape from custody, has vanished off the face of the earth and has lost his coveted position on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore), who enjoyed a brief period of celebrity after cracking the notorious Buffalo Bill case, now languishes as an officer on the street, presiding over run-of-the-mill raids on petty criminals and drug dealers. When one such raid is botched disastrously, Starling becomes the Bureau’s scapegoat and is put out to graze, banished to the basement to pour over the old Lecter case files on the pretext of being put back on “a celebrated case”. In the meantime, two distinctive players sense a golden opportunity. Mason Verger (Gary Oldman), horribly disfigured and the only of Lecter’s victims to survive, seeks to use starling to draw out his old nemesis. At the same time Lecter, tiring of his life in exile, decides that the time is ripe to “come out of retirement” and have a little fun of his own. One thing’s for sure: this can only end very, very messily...
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To appreciate Hannibal for what it is, the viewer needs to comply with a single demand: that you forget The Silence of the Lambs. Straightforward in theory, perhaps, but a tall order in practice. There can be little doubt that the earlier film was one of the most – if not the most – significant and influential films of its kind, renewing public interest in the figure of the serial killer and sparking a chain of similar detective movies which, with varying degrees of success, thrived on the notion of a psychological profiler playing mind games with a deranged killer. Hannibal contains both serial murder and mind games, but the recipe this time round is fundamentally different.
While Silence, despite being a brilliant film, and despite its many layers, was ultimately a straightforward manhunt movie, Hannibal is altogether more esoteric, bringing together a number of disparate elements and undergoing numerous shifts in tone. On the one hand, you’ve got Julianne Moore inhabiting what initially appears to be a straightforward cop movie – one with chaotic shoot-outs, tense stand-offs with po-faced bureaucrats and the determination to maintain one’s principles in a world that has none. On the other, you’ve got Giancarlo Giannini on the other side of the globe playing a very different sort of police officer: a corrupt Florentine detective who, desperate to rake in a little extra cash, builds his own gallows as he sets out to apprehend Lecter himself in exchange for a substantial reward offered by a mysterious third party. These two, who never actually meet, may be the ones with whom we can most readily identify (their individual dilemmas are familiar, whereas I doubt anyone reading this has ever had their face chewed off by a cannibal madman, let alone been the cannibal madman doing the chewing – feel free to correct me if I’m being overly presumptuous here), but are really only pawns in a much grander game being played by two madmen, one with his own sense of unflappable morality, however deranged, and the other consumed by rage, but both equally ruthless.
It’s also very funny – often uproariously so – reaching the height of its outrageousness in the infamous dinner scene. This little number, which scandalised moral watchdogs before they had actually watched it (isn’t that always the case, though?) and features such delights as a lobotomised man being fed his own brain, deftly combines vomit-inducing horror with black humour of the most delicious sort. (It also highlights the power of suggestion: to this day, many viewers are convinced they’ve seen something that they actually haven’t.) Hopkins’ performance in this film has often been criticised for turning Lecter into a pantomime villain, although in actual fact I feel that this is far less of an issue here than some would have you believe – his portrayal of the character in the subsequent prequel, Red Dragon, was far more problematic. Hopkins’ sly, knowing embodiment of the character here seems perfectly in keeping with the material, and there can be little doubt that he had fun with the role. His brief scenes with Gary Oldman are a delight as both thesps seek to outdo each other in terms of dry wit. Actually, the only cast member who doesn’t seem to have been let in on the joke is poor Julianne Moore, who cuts a swathe through the depravity surrounding her with a face like iron. Again, perfectly in keeping with her character’s plight, and Moore is good enough to almost allow you to forget Jodie Foster... almost, but not quite. Still, the fact that I didn’t spend the film’s duration thinking “That’s not Clarice” is possibly the highest compliment I can pay to this gifted actress, and I doubt the film would have been noticeably better with Foster in the role.
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Fundamentally, though, this is a dark, demented love story, revolving around Hannibal and Starling, posited as the only incorruptible people in the world. And it’s here that Ridley Scott and his screenwriter, Steven Zaillian (David Mamet wrote an earlier draft, very little of which survived, despite him receiving top billing), score their masterstroke. Whittling away the many unwieldy subplots and meanderings of Thomas Harris’ novel, which was described as unfilmable by many, they craft a surprisingly beautiful, poetic and poignant tale around the notion of a love that can never be. Gone is the involvement of Verger’s sister; so too is a subtle link between them, Lecter’s memories of his sister (that would be saved for the hilarious-for-all-the-wrong-reasons prequel, Hannibal Rising) and the elaborate passages envisaging his mind as a labyrinthine palace of memories, to say nothing of the novel’s scandalous conclusion, which some interpreted as Harris deliberately attempting to destroy the very series he created by undermining the core of its heroine’s principles. The film sweeps along effortlessly, aided by John Mathieson’s lush photography and a haunting score by Hans Zimmer at his least generic. There really is a sense of all the elements coming together to create a truly exceptional example of filmmaking, one with both artistic value and commercial appeal.
I hope that Hannibal will ultimately be remembered more fondly than it is now. Critics at the time of its release depicted it as a misstep for Scott after the perceived return to form that was Gladiator, but I consider Hannibal superior not only to that film but also to anything he has made since. Given both the material he had to work with and the conventions typically demanded by Hollywood of its sequels, what he managed to achieve is truly remarkable. I adore this film and I’m not ashamed to say that it’s one of my all-time favourites. If you have a taste for the slightly offbeat and like your horror movies to be both bloody and beautiful, then leave your preconceptions at the door and enjoy this masterful film for what it is. Those who expected The Silence of the Lambs II need not apply.
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Hannibal was previously released on Blu-ray last year by German label UFA. I was fairly disappointed by this disc, which appeared to use the same master as the original 2001 DVD and suffered from an underwhelming level of detail and some noticeable ringing, as well as an unnatural, heavily degrained appearance. Basically, it looked more like video than film. It also exacerbated a problem present to a lesser degree on the DVD, whereby the image was misframed, shifted slightly too low and resulting in a number of compositions looking a bit wonky, with slightly too little headroom. It’s a subtle effect, and one that only affects a handful of shots to a severe degree, but one that’s hard to ignore once you know it’s there. The shift is particularly visible during the opening titles, with the burned-in time code getting partially snipped off at the top of the frame.
Fast forward a year, and Universal’s release looks virtually identical to the UFA version. The same master has been used, and the degree of similarity between them points to the flaws existing in the master itself rather than having been introduced at the encoding stage. The only differences present are minor ones caused by slightly altered dispersion of the grain by the differing encodes – in other words, they simply appear subtly different rather than one being “better” than the other. I’m currently hoping (without a massive degree of optimism, it must be admitted) that the upcoming US release from MGM will offer something in the way of a tangible improvement.
I’ve included a couple of frames below to demonstrate just how close the two discs are to being identical.
The German release included a 6.1 DTS-HD High Resolution mix, whereas the UK edition comes with a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio variant. So, 6.1 lossy or 5.1 lossless? It’s a difficult question, not helped by the fact that I only have a 5.1 audio setup. Both are extremely good tracks, rich and involving, with a plethora of intricate multi-channel effects and crystal clear dialogue.
I listened to both tracks extensively, paying particular attention to the fish market shoot-out at around the nine-minute mark, and I found the process a little frustrating. The lossless track on the UK disc is certainly mixed louder than the lossy track on the German disc, initially making it difficult to tell whether there was any real world difference (for many people, “louder” has a tendency to subconsciously evoke connotations with “better”). I tried compensating for the volume difference using sound editing software, and felt that the lossless track sounded a little fuller and deeper, with more pronounced bass... although I admit that I’m using rather vague words to describe something highly subjective. I also suspect that the dialogue may be mixed slightly higher relative to the music and sound effects on the UK disc. Additionally, during the shoot-out, I heard at least one sound effect on the UK version that was completely absent on the German disc (a drinks can being shot at 00:08:48). As such, it does appear that the 6.1 variant, rather than simply “expanding” the existing 5.1 elements, is actually a different mix altogether.
Overall, my preference would lean towards the lossless UK mix, which certainly sounds more “satisfying” subjectively. Both are solid tracks, though, and those who already own the German release should have little cause to replace their copies with the UK version.
French and Spanish (DTS 5.1, 768 Kbps) dubs are also included. For subtitles, we get a plethora of languages, including the obligatory English (the German release also offered English subtitles). These cover both the film and the extras.
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Hannibal arrives on Blu-ray with most of the significant extras from the original 2-disc DVD release ported over, but with a few sadly lost in translation.
First, the good stuff. Ridley Scott’s dryly witty solo audio commentary is intact. I’ve always been fond of it. Scott admittedly sounds a little tired at times, and he does “um” and “er” a bit, but there’s a lot of good material to be gleaned from his comments, particularly with regard to research and the process of adapting the supposedly unadaptable novel.
Ditto Breaking the Silence: The Making of Hannibal, a 75-minute documentary put together by Charles de Lauzirika. De Lauzirika is one of the best in the business at what he does, and this probing feature reflects its pedigree. What’s impressive, for a documentary put together at the time of the film’s is original release, is how little effort it makes to “sell” its subject. Clips from the film are virtually non-existent, and while there’s a bit of the customary back-patting, and some skirting around contentious issues such as Jonathan Demme and Jodie Foster’s non-appearances (it mentions them doesn’t dwell on their reasons for not wanting to be involved), de Lauzirika is far more interested in getting the thoughts of the key participants. As such, the bulk of the footage consists of on-screen interviews featuring the likes of Scott, Anthony Hopkins and producers Dino and Martha De Laurentiis. It’s a textbook example of how to do a documentary of this sort properly, and it’s a shame we all too rarely see supplemental material of this quality accompanying recent releases.
Fourteen deleted scenes are also present, as well as an alternate ending, both with optional commentary by Scott. Of the former, the most interesting material pertains to a subplot that was entirely excised from the final cut, involving the real-life Italian serial killer “Il Mostro”. It’s easy to see why it was cut – it provides an interesting distraction but ultimately contributes little – but the material is all good and could certainly have remained in the film without harming it unduly.
Missing, unfortunately, are the very interesting multi-angle vignettes that were present on the DVD, covering the fish market shoot-out in a variety of angles, as well as examining Scott’s own storyboards for the film and the design of the title sequence. Gone too is the extensive marketing gallery, which included a variety of trailers and TV spots, as well as a plethora of poster design concepts. The Germans got the right idea and included all of these – what’s Universal’s excuse?
All the extras are in standard definition.
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