Let's get the most pressing question out of the way: Hannibal, the long-awaited sequel to 1991's The Silence of the Lambs, is a huge step down from its Best Picture Oscar-winning predecessor. But then again, expecting a follow-up to completely hold its own alongside one of the classic films of the past decade is perhaps a bit too much to ask, so one hopes Hannibal would at least be a decent film in its own right. Yet it isn't, and that fact, more than anything else, is why Hannibal fails: it is simply unable stand alone on its own few merits--but worst of all, it doesn't work as its own individual, self-contained cinematic entity.
Any admirer of Silence would tell you that it wasn't the primary manhunt plot that made Jonathan Demme's film of Thomas Harris' bestseller so special. While FBI trainee Clarice Starling's (then played by Jodie Foster, who earned an Oscar for her performance) pursuit of serial killer Buffalo Bill was gripping (not to mention it set up a memorably suspenseful climax), the lurid tale was pushed into greatness by the fascinating psychological dance between Clarice and imprisoned madman Dr. Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter (Anthony Hopkins, in the film's second Oscar-winning turn). The main story provided the short-term thrills, but what has continued to resonate a full decade after the film's initial release is Hannibal's cerebral seduction of the strong but green Clarice, who was forced to lay bare her most crippling emotional scars in exchange for crucial information about Buffalo Bill.
Hannibal and Clarice's love/hate, respect/revulsion relationship is a remarkably complex one, and by far the biggest sin committed by the Hannibal team of director Ridley Scott (replacing the Oscar-winning Demme) and screenwriters David Mamet and Steven Zaillian (taking over for Silence's also-Academy-awarded Ted Tally) is their failure to satisfactorily reintroduce it. This is an especially damaging move since Hannibal's Clarice is played not by Foster but Julianne Moore. With this film's storyline keeping Clarice and Hannibal apart up until the final sequence (a few brief phone exchanges along the way notwithstanding), Moore isn't given a fair chance to establish any type of chemistry with returning star Hopkins, let alone the intimate yet unsettling one he shared with Foster in Silence. Any impact their reunion may have relies almost exclusively on the history established in the first film, and with a new actor in one of the roles, the moment is robbed of virtually any power.
This is, however, no slight on Moore. She's an incredibly gifted actress, and she indeed does a respectable job under very trying circumstances. But the material she's given presents her no opportunity to make the role her own. A large part of Clarice's vastly diminished role consists of her sitting in front of computer screens or watching perfume store surveillance tapes in an effort to locate Hannibal, who is still at large after making a dramatic escape in the ten-year-old events depicted in Silence. But Special Agent Starling's connection with Dr. Lecter still runs deeper than your basic G-woman/criminal one, and she obsessively listens to recently recovered tapes of their creepy, years-ago interview sessions. The tapes are obviously a designed as a shorthand device to bring newcomers up to speed on the unconventional nature of their relationship, but those viewers will likely end up more confused as to why Clarice is so haunted by him. With Foster's non-involvement in this film, the pair's more charged exchanges could not be used, so all we hear are some of Hannibal's memorable, if fairly inconsequential in the long run, words from the first film plus some newly-recorded material between him and former asylum orderly Barney (Frankie R. Faison, the only other Silence returnee)--none of which begins to touch on their strange rapport.
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