A Film Writer’s Education is a feature where our editor Sophie gets her act together, and watches all of those classic films that you’re supposed to have seen if you call yourself a film lover. She has neglected the icons for too long, and is going back through some of the biggest and best moments in cinema to get her knowledge up to scratch. To start with, we’re going through Empire’s most recent list of the 100 greatest movies, released in 2017, around 60 of which Sophie hasn’t seen. She’s doing the work so you don’t have to.
She’ll share her thoughts on the film, whether she thinks it deserves it’s much loved status – and warning! Spoilers galore. Enjoy.
Before I get into it – I know, I know. The number of classic films I haven’t yet watched (despite calling myself a film lover) is embarrassing. It’s something that’s plagued me a while; nodding my head as people make references I don’t understand, others getting excited about franchises I know barely anything about…. but not any more, folks!
I’m going in on educating myself, and the film I’ve chosen to kick things off is Jonathan Demme‘s classic psycho-thriller-horror, Silence of the Lambs.
It stars Anthony Hopkins in his most revered role as cannibal psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter, and Jodie Foster as FBI agent-in-training Clarice Starling, who is tasked with interviewing Lecter in an effort to track down a brutal serial killer nicknamed Buffalo Bill.
The film did incredibly well at awards season upon release, becoming only the third film to win the ‘Big Five’ Oscars (best picture, actor, actress, screenplay and director), and notoriously Hopkins won the Academy Award despite having less than 20 minutes of screen time.
It spawned sequels and spin offs including the movies Hannibal and Red Dragon, as well as a TV series starring Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen as the cannibal himself.
Not to mention, the psychopathic Lecter is a cultural icon that cannot be ignored – whether it’s the muzzle and jumpsuit making for an effective Halloween costume, or the idea of something with ‘fava beans and a nice Chianti’ followed by a hiss, you’d have to be living in a cave to be totally unfamiliar with the character and storyline.
And it’s no wonder this disturbed doctor has become such a quoted figure – he well and truly lives up to expectation.
Coming to the film completely fresh and yet with all the context in the world, I expected the Chianti line and lip sucking to feel cliche, parodic even, and definitely not scary – but I was wrong. Hopkins’ manner as this character is thoroughly chilling even now.
His tall frame, measured insults, regal tone of voice and clearly incessant need to get inside Clarice’s head is incredibly disturbing and unsettling – you believe him capable of the terror he’s imprisoned for, without question. And yet somehow, as you watch him walking free at the end of the film, you’re completely rooting for him. Is it just me who found Dr Lecter terrifying yet likeable at the same time?
As for his sparring partner, Jodie Foster is really magnificent in this. She’s tough, she’s complex; she’s beautiful (for a reason), but ridiculously intelligent too. She almost figures out how to manipulate Lecter and plays him at his own game to get him on side. You never really believe he would hurt her – he respects her too much.
The scenes where they’re together really are the best, the most magnetic. The camera goes in close so their faces fill the frame, two sets of blue eyes staring each other down – his menacing, hers trying to belie her fear.
Another nice use of the camera is how it sometimes appears to sit on Clarice’s shoulder, wobbly movements as if we’re looking through her eyes. This really takes you into the character’s perspective and makes you feel like you’re there, in the room with her.
There’s horror here, but not explicitly. It’s more implied, suggested, but not really shown. One of the moments that stuck with me from the off was right near the start, as Clarice is first walking to meet Lecter. We’re told of an incident he tried to escape, how he bit a nurse’s tongue off and how they just about managed to get her jaw back in place. Clarice sees a picture of it, but the audience never does. You’re left to your own imagination with it, undoubtedly more horrifying than anything they could have shown you.
Plus, there’s just an inherent horror at the idea of Lecter’s crimes. Starling talks about Buffalo Bill taking the skin of his victims as a trophy, and Lecter says that not all killers take trophies – to which Starling replies ‘No. No, you ate yours’. She states it in such a matter of fact way that you feel a quiver of nausea just at the thought of it.
And how effective the character of Lecter must be for the Buffalo Bill case to feel like a side note, a secondary plot, when the idea of kidnapping women, starving them so their skin loosens and then carving it from them to create your own suit of flesh is horrifying enough to fill its own feature film. The primal way in which Ted Levine depicts this character is thoroughly disturbing, and the moments in which he reaches out to touch Clarice’s face in the darkness during the climax of the film sends shivers down your spine.
Silence of the Lambs holds nothing back – it’s shock factor, it’s psychopathy, it’s tension – and it makes for a totally unsettling experience that leaves no doubt as to why it has had such critical acclaim and cultural impact. A five star movie if ever there was one, and one that won’t be slipping out of the best movie lists for a long, long time.
If, like me, you are yet to see this masterpiece, watch the trailer below. Silence of the Lambs is streaming on Now TV at time of publishing.