In Hannibal, Lecter the escaped monster (Anthony Hopkins), now living in Italy under the courtly identity of a Renaissance scholar named Dr. Fell, is pursued by a multiplicity of forces, and he responds by attacking his enemies with a quicksilver ruthlessless so nimble that his very murderousness becomes a witty form of sleight of hand. The movie is nimble too. Adapted by David Mamet and Steven Zaillian from Thomas Harris’ 1999 novel, ”Hannibal” lacks the rounded emotional elegance of ”The Silence of the Lambs” (that was a great film; this one is merely good), yet director Ridley Scott, a rapt technician coming off the rousingly square ”Gladiator,” now casts a grisly fairy tale spell.
Lecter remains a riveting figure of fear in ”Hannibal,” never more so than when we catch a glimpse of prison asylum video surveillance footage in which he lunges, with terrifying brio, at the face of a nurse. But that fear is also the flip side of what we covet about him: the lithe and effortless mastery of his spontaneous snuff glee. As the movie, with its Internet age sheen, demonstrates, you can record Lecter’s imprint or capture him on a video screen, but you can’t steal his soul, which is timeless — wedded to the barbarity of antiquity.
Here, as in the earlier film, the inspired feat of Hopkins’ performance isn’t just the teasing joviality with which he gooses every encounter but the way that he delivers his most malicious lines with a kind of velvet tipped love. ”I’m giving very serious thought,” he purrs to one misbegotten soul, ”to eating your wife.” As we think back on the lovely woman he’s talking about, and the way that Lecter had been flirting with her just minutes before, his words seem less a threat than a perverse gift. For Lecter, murder, accompanied by his predilection for turning victims into snack meat, is pure consummation — an affectionate and weirdly sane way of putting the human race in its place. It’s a virtual redefinition of evil to be this nuanced and visionary a slasher, this cool.
”Hannibal,” like Harris’ unjustly maligned novel, is structured as a series of overlapping stalker and prey pursuits. Lecter, in the 10 years that he has roamed free, has never been far off the radar of Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore), the tough but vulnerable FBI agent who’s like his own private combination of Inspector Javert and Dante’s Beatrice. At the moment, however, his most dogged pursuer is Mason Verger (Gary Oldman), a filthy rich convicted pedophile who is the only one of Lecter’s 14 known victims to have survived. Verger, whose face is a skinless, bubbly maw of waxen gray flesh (the flashback that explains how he got that way has a shuddery ickiness), looks like he could be Michael Jackson in about 15 years, and Oldman, delivering his lines with the ironically tweedy good cheer of a malevolent Jimmy Stewart, plays him as a kind of wormy, sicko Elephant Man — a barely breathing accident seething with vengeance.
Verger’s plan is to capture Lecter and feed him live to an army of giant, woolly carnivorous pigs. The intriguing prospect of Lecter getting his just desserts gave the book much of its sadistic drive, but Scott doesn’t sustain the ominousness of the threat with enough fanfare. The Lecter in Florence section, however, is superb, with Giancarlo Giannini urgent and flustered as the Italian police detective who launches a doomed attempt to nab Lecter on his own in order to collect Verger’s $3 million reward. As for Lecter and Clarice, they spend most of the movie apart but tracking each other’s moves, resulting in a kind of ”Silence in Seattle.” Moore, chillier than Jodie Foster, but with the same woeful delicacy of perception, brings Clarice into a new, even more fragile phase (the character is coming off a botched drug raid for which she was unfairly blamed), and when she and Lecter finally connect, by near happenstance, on a cell phone, it’s a great, fateful moment.
Much has been made of the botched ending of ”Hannibal” (the book). The truly godawful part has been jettisoned — no more Clarice and Lecter dancing into the moonlight — but the dinner party scene is very much intact, and audiences can now leave the theater debating whether it’s true to the black opera spirit of Lecter, that gnashing id in civilized clothing, or simply the ultimate in Grand Guignol cheek. I would just like to say this, though, about the very last scene: The notion of Hannibal Lecter dining on leftovers — that’s a truly unspeakable horror.