Produced and Distributed by Dino De Laurentiis and MGM Studios
Directed by Ridley Scott
Screenplay by David Mamet and Steven Zaillian from the novel by Thomas Harris
Produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation
Directed by Paul Pavlikovsky
Screenplay by Rowan Joffe and Paul Pavlikovsky
Released by The Shooting Gallery
The original newspaper advertisements tor Hannibal (director Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Thomas Harris’s novel) displayed a ghoulish-looking close up of the eponymous protagonist, a more-than-usually mad psychiatrist who has an unfortunate penchant for dining on his patients. In the person of Anthony Hopkins, Hannibal the Cannibal glared at us malevolently, a crazed smile creasing his aging face.
A week into the film’s run, however, the picture changed. Now, we see Hopkins standing by a candlelit dinner table regarding Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore), the FBI agent with whom he’s conducted a cat-and-mouse relationship since they met in The Silence of the Lambs. She sits across from him in an elegant evening dress as he thoughtfully prepares her meal. Despite his evident attention to her needs, she stares past him into the middle distance, seemingly indifferent to his labors. It might as well be a scene from The Remains of the Day, in which Hopkins played the perfectly servile butler—a man self-effacingly dedicated to caring for his masters. Now, we may assume his masters are MGM studio executives—if not the paying public at large. They have ordered him to whip up a little something to set their jaded palates atingle once more. The resulting concoction involves a particularly outré variant of cannibalism that has sent audiences out of the theater indiscreetly abuzz (hence the new ad). Rather than think it a liability, MGM has chosen to take full advantage of this widespread disclosure of the film’s denouement. “Come back for a second helping,” one version coyly urges.
If you happen to be among those still unfamiliar with the film’s excesses, you may want to skip the next five paragraphs, since I will be addressing them in some detail.
Scott’s previous film, Gladiator, contained plenty of violence, but it was all a matter of sleight-of-hand suggestion carried off ingeniously with quicksilver editing. Here, however, he has called upon his special-effects technicians to shove blood and viscera in our faces. As in the novel, Dr. Lecter comes out of retirement to revenge the sullied honor of his reluctant protégé, Clarice. At considerable risk to himself—including being set upon by a herd of flesh-eating hogs—he finally accomplishes his gallant mission. He captures (and terminally discomfits) Clarice’s arch-tormentor, Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta), whose offenses are as much political as criminal.
In order to advance his own interests, Krendler, a careerist in the Department of Justice, planted evidence that compromised Clarice’s professional integrity and forced the FBI to suspend her. Worse, he’s made unwanted passes at her and disparaged women in general, claiming they’re better suited to taking dictation dian conducting investigations. Further, he assumes Lecter is “queer” because he’s interested in such “artsy-fartsy stuff as chamber music and Renaissance painting. For these crimes, Krendler gets his head handed to him—literally. First, Lecter drugs him, then saws off his skullcap. Next, he sits Krendler down to a dinner of morsels taken from his own brain. With each slice of gray matter removed from Krendler’s head, the unfortunate agent loses more and more of his mind, until he begins jabbering crudely and breaks into a childlike rendition of “Swinging on a Star.” This grisly scene is staged to make Lecter’s revenge on behalf of his Clarice seem both laudable and amusing. Although there were screams and groans at the showing I attended, I also heard chuckling and even a smattering of applause. Of course: Here was a homophobic male chauvinist being literally reduced to the idiot he had already proved himself to be culturally. There’s modern justice for you! Hate-criminals, beware!
There is something fundamentally askew about this narrative’s premise: Dr. Lecter is a monster who murders wantonly, but we are encouraged to admire him. The word “monster,” by the way, appears in the novel when the narrator grandly informs us that
there is no consensus in the psychiatric community that Dr. Lecter should be termed a man. He has long been regarded by his professional peers in psychiatry . . . as something entirely Other. For convenience they call him “monster.”
Harris, of course, has another term in mind. He’s made Lecter a superman in the Nietzschean sense: an individual who exists far beyond the petty parameters of good and evil. Yes, he kills, but his victims are invariably contemptible. They’re men who lack cultivation, especially regarding their relations with women. There’s the wretched Krendler, for one; but we are also treated to his opposite, a middle-aged Italian policeman (Giancarlo Giannini), married to a much younger woman whom he indulges uxoriously for fear of losing her. Each, in his own way, has objectified women and therefore deserves death at Lecter’s avenging hands. The doctor, you see, is an aesthete who can’t abide unseemly behavior. He is also a man of uncompromising taste (so to speak). He once killed an inferior flute player in the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra to make room for someone more talented. As a playful grace note, he fed the musician’s remains—suitably disguised—to the orchestra’s board of directors.
What are we to conclude? That being guilty of bad manners and exhibiting poor taste are capital crimes?” Sounds like a higher order of fascism, a call to cleanse the species of its louts. Louts may be troubling, but filleting them wholesale seems a trifle draconian. Besides, how appetizing would they be?
This kind of thing might work as comedy noir; but the script, crafted by the usually reliable David Mamet, is singularly witless, and the novel is even worse. Harris takes Lecter so seriously that he has him setting up house with Starling in the last pages—the prince of evil marrying the princess of virtue. Call me bourgeois, but I never did like William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and I like this version even less.
Last Resort, a very different kind of film, also features a dinner, but it’s considerably more wholesome than Hannibal‘s. The host is a lower-class Brit named Alfie (Paddy Considine), whose culinary aspirations never get more exotic than Indian takeout. Compared to the cultivated Lecter, however, Alfie exhibits a moral character that is immeasurably more palatable.
Alfie lives in Stonehaven (actually Margate), a seedy English seaside resort town where he manages a gaudy pier-side arcade. A former prizefighter of minor distinction, he seems as rough as his habitual day-old beard. But when a young, destitute Russian refugee and her 12-year-old son happen upon his establishment, he rises gallantly to their rescue. He feeds them vindaloo and teaches the boy the finer points of electronic pinball. He’s not very cultivated, but his concern for the two displaced people is sincere. Though his interest is at first provoked by the woman’s comeliness, this chap is a natural gentleman and would never insist on a sexual quid pro quo for his assistance. Although the mother doesn’t respond at first to his romantic overtures and Alfie comes to suspect she never will, he continues to help her and her son negotiate the various pitfalls of his working class neighborhood.
Written and directed by Polish documentarian Paul Pavlikovsky, Last Resort doesn’t have much of a plot, but its texture is unusually compelling. It begins with Tanya (Dina Korzun), the mother, arriving at Heathrow Airport with her son Artyom (Artyom Strelnikov). She has come from Moscow expecting to be met by her fiancé, but he never shows up. With only $85 to her name and no prospects, she finds herself caught in the toils of the British customs system. Afraid she’ll be deported, she impulsively requests political asylum, only to find herself promptly bused to the aptly named Stonehaven, which serves as a “designated holding area” for refugees. This scruffy town features an abandoned amusement park still emblazoned with a sign reading “Dreamland Welcomes You.” The dream, however, turns out to be thoroughly Orwellian. She and her son are assigned a ratty council flat in a hideous poured-concrete high-rise. They’re monitored everywhere they go by cameras mounted on barbed-wire fences. When she discovers they will have to stay there for at least 12 to 18 months, she tries to escape to London. Suddenly, police appear to tell her there are no trains running to the city. She’s trapped in a bureaucratically contrived limbo all too reminiscent of the life she had known in Russia.
Meanwhile, the men of the neighborhood begin to take notice of her. She’s approached by Les, who calls himself Mr. Stonehaven. With a show of oily kindness, he offers her work as a performer on his internet porn site. Studying her with a professional eye, he concludes that she could portray an innocent schoolgirl type—a real draw for the paying “punters” who, he proudly declare; use his service around the globe. Mean while, Artyom has fallen in with some lo cal children, drinking and thieving with them at night. Desperate, Tanya turns to selling her blood—the one replenishable commodity the poor have to offer—to nurses who circulate through the neighborhood in a van.
Pavlikovsky’s critique of capitalism goes unspoken. He uses his camera to suggest that, while people may flee the East’s stifling socialism, the Wests freemarket alternative is little better. The system encourages people to package and market themselves. This implied moral equivalence between East and West seems overly facile. But it’s a momentary lapse that doesn’t subvert the film’s larger intentions. In the end, Pavlikovsky wants to convince us that chivalry is still possible in our seemingly hardhearted, regimented world. Alfie’s no-strings decency demonstrates what a good man of ordinary means can accomplish when he puts his mind to helping those less fortunate than himself Pavlikovsky doesn’t make the mistake of equating realism with bleakness.
Then there is Pavlikovsky’s extraordinary visual style. Shooting his opening scenes in extreme closeup, he makes us feel Tanya’s entrapment by having her and her son always seem to be pressing against the tight confines of the screen’s frame. Later, they walk along the beach with Alfie during a gale. In the background, white-capped waves scud relentlessly in the opposite direction, and we can see that these are people perpetually battered by forces—natural and political—beyond their understanding. Perhaps the most striking shot is one that appears twice: Tanya and Artyom sit together in an airport shuttle train, silently leaning against one another, their faces impassive as the vehicle whisks them along. Pavlikovsky shoots them from below with their backs against the all-glass enclosure at the rear of the car. They seem to be sailing through empty space entirely unsupported, utterly alone, and profoundly vulnerable—a simple shot conveying instantly and devastatingly a poignancy nearly inexpressible in words. Pavlikovsky is an artist who deserves our attention. I urge you to make the Last Resort your first.