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Hannibal goes for baroque

At the end of the original Silence of the Lambs, serial killer and genius Hannibal Lecter not only freed himself from imprisonment, he escaped into our collective imaginations.
Already a vivid role in Thomas Harris' novels, with Anthony Hopkins' purring delivery and penetrating stare, Lecter became a hypnotic, all-purpose bogeyman, unbound by straitjackets or even the boundaries of the film itself. Lecter won Hopkins an Oscar and changed our attitude about fava beans and a nice Chianti. The opening credits of the sequel Hannibal hint at this, as a flock of pigeons on an Italian piazza gather to form Lecter's visage.
Silence made the character into a kind of collaboration between Harris and Hopkins, with all due respect to various screenwriters, directors and Brian Cox, who ably played the role in Manhunter. Apart from Silence's popularity and honors, the fuel for a sequel has been the prospect of Lecter unleashed among an unsuspecting populace, who, by comparison, are lambs indeed.
That's a taller order than it might sound, and Silence of the Lambs ends up having a similar relationship to Hannibal as 2001: A Space Odyssey has with the follow-up 2010. Showing Lecter on the loose, like providing an answer to 2001's black monoliths, simply can't equal what we can imagine. But 2010, lest we forget, was a perfectly entertaining sci-fi adventure, and Hannibal proves to be a sleek suspense thriller full of gripping cat-and-mouse games.
Years have passed since the prior film, and Jodie Foster having turned down the project, FBI agent Clarice Starling is now played by Julianne Moore. Moore doesn't have as confident a Southern accent as Foster, but it's otherwise a terrific stroke of casting: You can see Foster's young but tough agent growing into Moore's approach to the character, a consummate professional left haunted by her experience with Lecter and embittered by sexism of the bureau, embodied by a snide Ray Liotta. Even Moore's pale complexion suggests that over the years Starling has lost more than she's gained.
Having become a minor celebrity following the events of Silence, Starling is thrust back into the media spotlight by a drug bust gone wrong. Whereabouts unknown, Lecter himself is a cult figure, whose signed copy of The Joy of Cooking is worth a fortune from collectors. Hearing of Starling's troubles, Lecter drops her a note, renewing the FBI investigation and attracting the loathsome Mason Verger (an uncredited, unrecognizable Gary Oldman), a filthy rich former victim of Lecter's whose plans for payback involve ravenous boars.
The past decade has seen Lecter, always the aesthete, living the high life in Florence, lecturing on Dante and enjoying wine and opera. However, an Italian detective (Giancarlo Giannini) suspects Lecter's true identity and hunts him for the reward money. The who's-stalking-whom scenes with Hopkins and Giannini provide Hannibal's most tense and fluidly filmed moments, more Hitchcockian than any in the first.
Part of the power of Jonathan Demme's film was its persistent sobriety for a genre thriller. Silence's story unfolded in long, dialogue-driven scenes often shot in simple close-ups, creating a mood that seemed to suggest Nietzche's warning not to gaze into the abyss lest the abyss gaze into you. Helming Hannibal, however, is Ridley Scott, who even with his most influential films (Blade Runner, Gladiator) tends to emphasize photography and art direction over story.
As you'd expect from a Scott film, Hannibal is lushly shot by John Mathieson, although it takes pains to create a baroque look, with mammoth statues seemingly stuck in every corner of the Italian locations or Verger's American estate. And where Silence was poker-faced, its successor at times borders on glossy camp, as when Verger twirls around in his wheelchair while "The Blue Danube" plays. Oldman's make-up, lipless and lidless, is undeniably shocking at first sight, but the film shows it too often, diminishing its impact.
The script has Lecter biting off one culinary pun after another — "The next course is to die for" — the sort of lines you can imagine Vincent Price delivering in The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Hopkins doesn't seem quite as fit as he used to, but he still gives Lecter such an eerie charisma that it's hard to avert you eyes from him when he's on-screen. The actor seems particularly energized by the notion that Lecter, otherwise scarcely human, has an Achilles heel in his feelings for Starling.
Screenwriters David Mamet and Steven Zaillian efficiently streamline Harris' lengthy book, although Starling gets left for long portions with little to do but surf the Net. If you've heard about the book's finale, suffice it to say that the film backs away from some of Harris' darker moral implications, while still providing the grisliest on-screen dinner table scene since The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Hannibal hints at a theme of the corruptibility of law enforcement organizations, but despite its gorgeous settings, contributes little that Silence of the Lambs or Manhunter hadn't said already. But if Harris and Hopkins didn't strictly need to come back for seconds, Hannibal keeps the tension at a delicious simmer.