It wasn't the most troubled production in film history, but the bumpy development of Hannibal drew a lot of attention, with both Silence Of The Lambs director Jonathan Demme and original Starling Jodie Foster turning it down. There's no denying the high level of talent among those who are involved (Ridley Scott, Julianne Moore, writers David Mamet and Steven Zaillian and, of course, Anthony Hopkins), but the question is: have they managed to turn a disappointing book into a chilling sequel? Or did too many cooks spoil the human-flavoured broth?
Well, those unimpressed by Thomas Harris' gory hammery will be glad to know his most thoughtless flourishes have been ditched. Mason Verger's laughable orphan's-tear-drinking, his stereotypical bull-dyke sister, Lecter's inexplicable predilection for playing the theramin... All gone. And as for that ending? Let's just say the movie pulls off the not-too-difficult trick of improving it.
What remains is a slicker, slimmed-down thriller which relies almost entirely on Hopkins - and ol' Tony bleeds his role for all it's worth, treating Lambs fans to Lecter's symbolism-heavy speeches, evil smirk, and plenty of barbed quips. But we like him so much that we root for him, and once we're rooting for him, he's not threatening. And that's the problem - Hannibal may be the grossest film you'll see all year, but it ain't scary.
Yet it goes beyond Dr Lecter himself. Man-eating pigs? Ugly, but not exactly fearsome. The disfigured Mason Verger? Gary Oldman's totally unrecognisable, but the prosthetic makes him look worryingly like the Whos from The Grinch. Gut-churning suspense? Scott tries, but while he succeeds in making the Florence-based segment both pacy and beautifully shot, the second half of the movie lacks any strong narrative thrust. This isn't a carefully structured, race-against-time crime-flick like Silence Of The Lambs; it's merely The Further Misadventures Of Hannibal The Cannibal...
Extend the comparisons with Lambs and Hannibal suffers further. Julianne Moore was about the best Foster substitute you could hope for and she nails the accent, but the script doesn't give her enough to make the role her own. This Starling is just bait, pushed around by her bosses and manipulated by Twin Freaks Lecter and Verger.
But despite its faults, there's no denying that Hannibal is an adept adaptation of a silly book, succeeds in translating its grand-guignol excesses to the big screen, and reminds us why Hopkins made Lecter such a perversely entertaining mad guy in the first place.