Chivalry, formality, neutrality. This is English reticence taken to a conclusion that is as sad as it is logical. Principle is Mr. Stevens, butler to a tradition destined to doom both personal and political, played by Anthony Hopkins with the utmost dexterity. My sole doubt comes from the historical drama that fills out a surprising portion of the runtime, given the meat of the film is its relationship near-tragedy. Yet one will realize even the historical is used to constantly frame Mr. Stevens’ entire being against friends, family, strangers in the pub, house guests, the world more or less. In the face of this onslaught his code attains great dignity — a complex man confronting problematic issues in a manner that exposes the braggadocio of modern discourse. But it also exposes great naivety. And no debate over ideals can obfuscate the raw agony of its immutable dilemma — irresolvable rather than unrequited love — one probed with excruciating precision, particularly in a knife-plunging penultimate scene. A character study in character studies.
A superb movie, but then you probably already knew that. My thoughts? Objectification of women, taken to its logical extreme by the serial killing culprit, was the strongest impression I had. Crucially, this impression wasn’t built solely from the smorgasbord of psychopaths on display — any film can present an objectionable viewpoint from the position of a Bad Man and not provoke much in the way of debate. It’s in the “good” and the bad. Chief among the director’s weapons is a lingering POV, most eye-catching when framing the electrifying one-on-one scenes between Jodie Foster’s Clarise and Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal. So magnetic are these scenes one could easily miss how important the same technique is in the gaps in-between. Men hitting on an attractive young woman in a professional setting might be an all-too common, nauseating experience for the latter. But the effect of the camera, always intimate enough to suggest every nervous, unsettling desire, always held just slightly longer than one feels comfortable with, imparts that queer ill-ease on the viewer. Dialogue also deserves a mention for its role in this. Even the most cordial of interactions near the end is lent such a dimension by one of Hannibal’s earlier taunts, “Jack Crawford is helping your career isn’t he? Apparently he likes you and you like him too”. Suggesting, almost slyly, that less separates his primeval bestiality from the rest of us than you might think.
I was less onboard for the final act. Changing gears immediately and decisively from psychological drama into action thriller, the latter was a touch too thriller finale by numbers for my taste, lacking some of the guile that marked its contemplative mode – but not without its share of gratifying thrills. It’s a relatively minor gripe for a movie that’ll command your attention with steely authority in the manner of its two leads – there’s not a second they’re on screen that your eyes won’t be.