Tag: Anthony Hopkins

The Remains of the Day (1993)

The Remains of the Day (1993)

Hopkins and Thompson are marvellous in this masterful adaptation from Merchant-Ivory

Director: James Ivory

Cast: Anthony Hopkins (Mr Stevens), Emma Thompson (Miss Kenton), James Fox (Lord Darlington), Christopher Reeve (Congressman Jack Lewis), Peter Vaughan (Mr Stevens Snr), Hugh Grant (Reginald Cardinal), Michael Lonsdale (Dupont D’Ivry), Tim Pigott-Smith (Mr Benn), Ben Chaplin (Charlie), Patrick Godfrey (Spencer), Lena Headey (Lizzie), Pip Torrens (Dr Carlisle), Paul Copley (Harry Smith) Rupert Vansittart (Sir Geoffrey Wren), Peter Eyre (Lord Halifax), Wolf Kahler (Ribbentrop)

Kazou Ishiguro’s Booker-prize winning novel The Remains of the Day is one of my all-time favourites. So, it’s not a surprise I’m a huge fan of this masterful adaptation from the House of Merchant Ivory. I’m certain this is the apex of the team’s work. Mike Nichols had originally planned a film but, wisely, recognised when it came to making movies about repressed 1930s Brits, one team had a monopoly on how to do it best. Beautifully adapted by their regular screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, The Remains of the Day is a wonderfully involving and deeply moving film.

Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) is a butler in a British country house purchased in 1956 by American Jack Lewis (Christopher Reeve). Keen to solve staffing problems (and for no other reason at all), Stevens journeys to the West Country to recruit the 1930s housekeeper, Mrs Benn nee Kenton (Emma Thompson). During the journey, he remembers his service for the previous owner, Lord Darlington (James Fox). An impeccable gentleman, Darlington dedicates himself to reconciliation between Nazi Germany and England, eventually tipping into an unwise dalliance with fascism and appeasement.

Stevens had no views on that though. In fact, he prides himself on his anonymity. The goal of his life is to maintain a dignified unobtrusiveness, ensuring the smooth operation of everything, leaving as little a mark as possible. Nothing can intrude on that: not his own feelings, the illness and death of his under-butler father (Peter Vaughan) and, above all, the unspoken romantic feelings between himself and Miss Kenton. The Remains of the Day is about duty and obsession and how a fixation on both can leave someone with little to show from a long life.

Stevens is living the lessons he learned from his father, an ageing powerhouse masterfully played by Peter Vaughan, who undergoes a physical collapse (from dripping nose to dropping trays) and bouts of forgetfulness, eventually dying on a night Stevens is too busy seeing to the sore feet of an illustrious French guest to spare a moment to visit him. It tells you everything about his character that this stiff-upper lipped commitment to duty is a source of pride to our hero.

There are few as curiously blank ‘heroes’ in literature than Stevens. The narrator of Ishiguro’s book is a dull, fussy, unbelievably cold man who has dedicated himself so fully to duty that he has let any emotional life wither and die on the vine – something he only realises far too late. It’s an immensely challenging role, bought to life masterfully by Hopkins. Hopkins astonishing skill here is to play all that repressed coldness on the surface, but also constantly let us see the emotion, longing and regret he is subconsciously crushing down play in his eyes and the corners of his mouth. Is Stevens even aware how much self-harm he is causing? It’s an astonishingly subtle performance.

So subtle in fact that the books conclusion – Steven’s tear-filled confession to a stranger late at night of all the mistakes he has made – was filmed but cut for being superfluous. Hopkins had done the lot, all the way through the movie, through acting skill. You can’t miss the struggle within him, not least the desperate, powerless longing he feels for Miss Kenton that, for oh-so-English reasons he can never admit to himself. Hopkins has the vocal and physical precision, but every gesture tremors with unspoken, barely understood longings. In fact, it’s a shock when he exclaims an angry “Blast” after dropping a bottle of wine (the real cause of his outburst being, of course, Miss Kenton’s announcement that she is getting married)

He and Miss Kenton conduct a professional relationship that blossoms into something like a friendship – but he consistently rejects her polite efforts to take it further. In the film’s most powerful scene, Miss Kenton enters his parlour and playfully tries to see the title of the novel he’s reading (a sappy romance). The playfulness tips into agonisingly awkward tenseness as Hopkins’ Stevens seems paralysed, his hand lingering inches from her hair but unable to bring himself to break decorum and fold her in an embrace – all while Miss Kenton continues her increasingly desperate semi-flirtatious banter. It of course ends with Stevens dismissing her: just as later he will take a snap of frustration as a signal to irrevocably cancel their late-night cups of cocoa together.

Emma Thompson is wonderful as a woman only marginally more in touch with her feelings and longings than Stevens is: aware that she, eventually, wants more from life, but unable to find the way of communicating the love she clearly feels for Stevens in a manner he can respond to. Instead, the two of them oscillate between a friendly, affectionate alliance and a discordant arguments (their only outlet for their passion), rooted in their inability to admit their feelings for each other. To further stress the point, both of them mentor young staffers (played by a very young Ben Chaplin and Lena Headey) who have the youthful “what the hell” to jack in all this for love.

Ivory’s wonderfully subtle film makes clear this is a turning point in history, the final hurrah for the this sort of deferential hierarchy. Stevens is the last of a generation of butlers, convinced that what their employers got up to had nothing to do with them – views not shared by Tim Piggot-Smith’s more grounded Benn, who chucks in his job working for a bullying blackshirt (who else but Rupert Vansittart?). Throughout the 1950s storyline, Stevens is constantly asked if he knew the infamous Lord Darlington (a sort of Lord Londonderry figure, hopelessly taken in by Hitler) – in fact, like Paul, he twice denies ever having known him.

And you can understand why, as the film has sympathy for Lord Darlington. As his decent, liberal god-son Reginald Cardinal (an excellent Hugh Grant) says, Darlington is a great asset for Germany precisely because he’s honest, well-meaning and motivated by a desire for peace. The fact that his leads him to consort with a host of Nazis, Blackshirts and the most appalling anti-democratic vestiges of the upper-classes (at one point, Stevens selflessly gives a performance of geopolitical ignorance so as to help demonstrate why men like him shouldn’t have the vote) is an unfortunate side-effect.

Played perfectly by James Fox, Darlington is misguided but genuine. As war approaches, he leads an increasingly hermit like life – camp-bed and paper-strewn, messy library – hosting conferences denounced by Jack Lewis (a fine Christopher Reeve) as a host of amateurs talking about a world they no longer understand. Beneath it all, Darlington is guided by fair play. So much so, it’s almost distressing to see him (under the influence of an attractive German countess) reading anti-Semitic pamphlets and sacking two refugee Jewish maids – an act he later regrets (far too late). This moment also reinforces Stevens’ compromised pig-headedness (not his place to judge!) and Miss Kenton’s fear to act (she’s horrified, but to scared of unemployment to hand in her notice).

All of this culminates in a series of scenes where emotions pour out of the actors, even while their words are banal and everyday memories and reflections. Ivory was never more confident and skilled behind the camera, and the film is a technical marvel, beautifully shot with a wonderful score from Richard Robbins. Hopkins is phenomenally good, simultaneously pitiable and smackable, Thompson is wonderful alongside him, Fox and Grant perfect – it’s a very well-acted piece. And a wonderfully perfect capturing of a classic modern British novel. No doubt: the best Merchant Ivory film.

The Father (2020)

Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins excel in Florian Zeller’s sublime The Father

Director: Florian Zeller

Cast: Anthony Hopkins (Anthony), Olivia Colman (Anne), Rufus Sewell (Paul), Imogen Poots (Laura), Olivia Williams (The Woman), Mark Gatiss (The Man)

Is there any worse nightmare than the thought of losing your mind? Worse of all, to lose your mind in stages: to be aware, in every moment, that things are not as they should be, that people and places no longer seem to fit your memory of them. That you can walk into a room and completely forget why or meet someone close to you and have no a clue who they are. It’s an unimaginable condition to go through – and the subject of Florian Zeller’s exceptional adaptation of his award-winning play, The Father.

Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) is a retired engineer slowly succumbing to dementia. Events are increasingly confusing to him. Is he living in his own flat, or is he living with his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman)? Is Anne moving to France or not? Is she married to Paul (Rufus Sewell) or not? Where is his other daughter who looks so like a woman who may-or-may-not be his new carer, Laura (Imogen Poots)? From moment-to-moment Anthony struggles with confusion, rage and fear as the world constantly fails to coalesce into a meaningful picture, but instead remains a fragmented jumble.

That’s the brilliance behind Zeller’s adaptation of his own award-winning play. It captures the perspective of the world for those suffering from dementia in a way no film has done before. The play’s timeline is disjointed in an almost Nolan-esque way, and it’s not clear whether we are watching ‘real’ events’ or if all of these events are memories of Anthony’s which dementia has shuffled, reordered and recast. Either way, the film constantly refuses to allow you any grounding from scene-to-scene, and refuses to present clear answers (although you can infer much).

Even the sets betray us. From to scene to scene the apartment is redressed, sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes in jarringly different ways. The same fundamental layout sees every room constantly redesigned. Sometimes it could be Anthony’s apartment. Sometimes Anne’s apartment. Sometimes a mix of the two. Sometimes it’s a hospital, in others a retirement home. Often it might be a combination of one or more of these locations all at once. The style of decoration is inconsistent, the furniture changes, pictures move, even the colours of bedsheets change. Every single scene disorientates us: it’s only a movie for us, but for Anthony this is his life.

In fact, if The Father has a filmic influence, interestingly it’s a horror-film. Anthony is a man trapped in a situation where he knows everything is wrong, but can never fully understand why, or get people to listen to him. Often the camera catches discomfort and fear on Hopkins’ face, and it’s clear he neither knows where he is or, in many cases, who the people with him are. But for fear of not being believed or a sense of powerlessness, he’s too proud and scared to ask. It taps into the powerlessness of horror films, where you are relentlessly chased by a force outside your control: in The Father that force is life, which has become for Anthony a disturbing kaleidoscope where everything makes sense to everyone except him.

Of course, a large part of this is sold by Anthony Hopkins Oscar-winning lead performance. Hopkins delivers to an astonishing degree: this might just be the greatest performance of his career. Although we see flashes of ‘the true Anthony’ – his wit, playfulness and intelligence – Hopkins deftly and subtly demonstrates the wildly varying mood swings dementia brings. At times he’s paranoid, defensive and even aggressive. At others he’s stunningly vulnerable and scared – he has two breakdown scenes of such heart-breaking vulnerability and boyish fear, they are tough to watch.

The film opens with Anne telling Anthony she’ll be leaving for Paris, and Hopkins’ face collapses into a crumpled, puffy, scared-little-boy face while he plaintively asks what will happen to him. Anthony fixates on things that give him any sense of control: he is obsessed with his watch, hiding it and continuously searching for it. He will dredge up a fact from the distant past to ‘prove’ he has not lost his memory. He snaps angrily when he feels he is being talked down to. His resentment expresses itself in viciously cruel verbal assaults on Anne, labelling her a disappointment, failure and his least favourite child. Then a few scenes later he’ll squeeze her shoulder and quietly and lovingly thank her for everything she has done for him. All of this is delivered by Hopkins with no grand-standing, but with a hugely affecting truthfulness. It’s an astonishingly good performance.

Every scene carefully demonstrates time and again Anthony’s fear and vulnerability. Actors are even replaced by other actors in several scenes. In Anne’s second appearance she is played by Olivia Williams. In a beautiful piece of subtle acting by both Hopkins and Williams, it’s clear Anthony doesn’t recognise Anne and she realises this but decides not to say anything. Anne’s husband (or boyfriend – Anthony remains unclear, so at times so do we) Paul (as he’s called most of the time) is mostly played by Rufus Sewell, but sometimes by Mark Gatiss. Paul is the closest the film has to an antagonist, although much of that is filtered through Anthony’s confused perception and, in any case, Paul is right that Anthony’s condition is making it too difficult for him to remain at home.

And we can see his point. Although each scene more-or-less makes sense within itself, the complete film is like looking at a jigsaw puzzle with all the pieces upside down and no picture, and then being asked to assemble it. In one particularly brilliant dinner scene, the film starts with Anthony witnessing a conversation between Paul and Anne, then loops through the scene and ends with Anthony witnessing exactly the same conversation again. The film is a deliberately, brilliantly, opaque tableau that defies easy meaning.

In all, The Father is a quite unique and brilliant film, that translates a theatrical piece into something highly cinematic. Hopkins is breath-taking, but Colman is also superb as Anne, in a part tailor-made for her ready empathy and easy emotionalism. Zeller’s direction is astonishingly confident and dynamic for a first-timer and the film slots you into the world of a dementia sufferer with an alarming immediacy. A superb film.

The Edge (1997)

Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin take on nature (and a bear) in The Edge

Director: Lee Tamahori

Cast: Anthony Hopkins (Charles Morse), Alec Baldwin (Robert Green), Harold Perrineau (Stephen), Elle Macpherson (Mickey Morse), LQ Jones (Styles), Bart the Bear

During a trip to a remote part of Alaska to celebrate his birthday, millionaire Charles Morse (Anthony Hopkins) is stranded hundreds of miles from rescue after a plane crash. The only other survivors are Robert (Alec Baldwin), a photographer Charles suspects of having an affair with his much younger wife Mickey (Elle Macpherson), and Robert’s assistant Steve (Harold Perrineau). Their best chance for survival may well be Charles’ photographic memory and his recall of all sorts of knowledge, recently topped up by reading a survival book. They’ll need it if they are to defeat and kill a man-hunting grizzly bear that swiftly dispatches Stephen.

With a script by David Mamet and some tight, tension-filled direction from Lee Tamahori, The Edge is a well-above average survival film where the main interest is less on the methods of survival than on the spiky, punchily-written interplay between Hopkins and Baldwin. The style of both actors – Hopkins channelling a zen-like calm, while Baldwin goes for a spiky flamboyance masking vulnerability – makes them a very well-matched pair and ensures The Edge constantly has something to entertain and intrigue in every scene.

The Alaskan outback is beautifully filmed, but still oppressively dangerous – a vast canopy of nothing but trees, mountains and snow. The film conveys a brilliant sense of the intense cold – our heroes almost die immediately due to exposure, after crashing into ice cold water – as well as the never-ending difficulties of navigating and surviving in the wilderness (almost inevitably their first day is spent walking in a large circle).

That’s before you even take into account the bear. Much of the film is taken up with Charles and Robert setting aside their differences to take on this killer creature, dodging its advances and finally laying a trap to slay it. Played by experienced acting bear Bart – who even gets an extra special credit all of his own – this creature serves as a superb embodiment of all the natural obstacles our heroes are facing, a running and clawed representation of the dangers of the wild made flesh. It also makes for a series of very tense confrontations.

What’s fascinating about the film though is that the real outback hero who emerges is not the jet-setting Robert, but the bookish and reserved Charles. This is one of the few films where a photographic memory and an ability to stay calm and collected make for practically superhuman skills. Hopkins is very good as Morse, a thoughtful man who surprisingly finds a greater sense of purpose and drive in the wilderness than he ever had in his business life. Mamet’s script delights in the titbits he has memorised, from building compasses to celestial navigation and the psychological requirements for staying alive in the wilderness.

Hopkins’ coolness is used to great effect – even if Charles seems an unlikely millionaire businessman – and contrasts wonderfully with Baldwin’s energy in the showier role as a weaker man. The Edge – originally titled by the even less inspired name of Bookworm – rather sweetly celebrates the virtues of wide-reading, education, curiosity and intellectual magpieism and shows how these qualities can be turned to life-saving effect. Charles turns out, to a certain extent, to be in his element – and without a doubt without him everyone would have died long before the inevitable rescue helicopter.

The Edge also covers a neat line in psychology. A constant refrain is that psychological collapse – a sense of giving up, rooted in ‘shame’ and assumptions that their fate must be deserved – is the key danger to survival. It’s a theme that the film constantly returns to (perhaps a little too much at times), but also ideas that I’m not sure survival films have focused on so keenly before. Usually in these suggestions gruffness and manly qualities are celebrated, but The Edge suggests that the wilderness is a great leveller and sometimes skills we did not expect become crucial to our survival. Sure, Charles sets about killing the bear with a ruthless determination – but his plan to do it is rooted in his learning and mastery of trivia.

The Edge doesn’t rework the wheel, but it’s a lovely piece of B-movie film-making, full of tension, fine dialogue and some impressive acting.

The Bounty (1984)

Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins go head-to-head in The Bounty

Director: Roger Donaldson

Cast: Mel Gibson (Fletcher Christian), Anthony Hopkins (Lt William Bligh), Laurence Olivier (Admiral Hood), Edward Fox (Captain Greetham), Daniel Day-Lewis (John Fryer), Bernard Hill (William Cole), Phil Davis (Edward Young), Liam Neeson (Charles Churchill), Wi Kuku Kaa (King Tynah), Tevaite Vernette (Mauatua), Philip Martin Brown (John Adams), Simon Chandler (David Nelson

The story of the mutiny on The Bounty has intrigued for centuries. It’s been made into plays, novels and no fewer than three films. Most versions have been inspired by a 1932 novel that painted Bligh as an ogre and Christian as a matinee idol. That image was cemented by the classic Best Picture winning Laughton/Gable version. The real story is far more intriguing – and operates much more in shades of grey – and this 1984 film tries to find a middle ground, with mixed success.

In real life, Bligh was a prickly, difficult but fundamentally decent man, who had worked his way up the naval ranks through merit. He was a superb sailor – as seen by his feat of navigating a small open boat of loyalists over hundreds of miles back to a British port. Cleared of any guilt for the mutiny, he had a successful career and retired as Vice Admiral. Fletcher Christian, on the other hand, was an entitled young man who owed everything to his rich family, rather than merit. The truth has been lost in fictionalised versions who were devil and saint. The truth was far more complex.

This film was a long-standing dream of David Lean, who planned the film for many years, before pulling out at the last moment. The script was written by long-time collaborator Robert Bolt (although ill health meant it was finished by an uncredited Melvyn Bragg). Producer Dino de Laurentis – not wanting to write off the money invested – bought in Australian Roger Donaldson to direct. The final product is a competent, if uninspired, middle-brow history film with a slight air of stodge, and a haunting – if incredibly 80s – electronic score from Vangelis. Where the film really lucked out is the superb cast of actors assembled, with Gibson on the cusp of mega stardom and the cast stuffed with future Oscar winners and nominees.

Anthony Hopkins had been attached to the film for almost seven years, and his carefully researched performance as Bligh is what really gives makes the film work. He gets closer to the personality of the real Bligh than anyone else ever has. Awkward, shy, uneasy with men under his command, insecure at his poor background and the West Country burr to his accent, Hopkins’ Bligh is a world away from a bad man. But he is a demanding and rigid leader, who inspires fear but not respect. He’s far from cruel, but he’s short-tempered, inflexible and has trouble empathising. All too often, he relies on his position alone to ensure obedience, rather than building respect. You sympathise with him, at the same time becoming deeply frustrated at his intransigence. You can understand why many would find him an extremely difficult man to work with (let alone work for).

Fletcher Christian is young, naïve and impetuous, a man whose experiences in Tahiti lead him to become surly and impatient with the confines of a naval life. Gibson later said he felt the film didn’t go far enough to depict Christian as selfish and motivated by a desire for the ‘good life’, and the film does try to show him standing up for the crew against Bligh’s demands for perfection. But Gibson is willing to embrace Christian’s darkness. He hurls himself into the (historically attested) near mental collapse, consumed with violent and unpredictable emotion, that Christian demonstrated during the mutiny, losing all control of himself in an explosion of self-pity and frustration.

The film’s highpoints revolve invariably around these actors. Hopkins’ demanding Bligh sets the tone on the ship. The roots of the mutiny can be seen in Bligh’s public bawling out (and demotion) of his first officer Mr Fryer (a disdainful Daniel Day-Lewis) in front of the entire ship, setting a precedent for disrespect. Every action he intends to build spirit and health in the crew has the exact opposite effect (from pushing them to excel, to enforced dancing sessions for exercise). Hopkins is perfect as man believing he is acting for the best but constantly getting the tone wrong, either too distant and reserved to inspire affection, or too enraged to inspire loyalty. Similarly Gibson, in the less intriguing part, really sells the growing self-absorption of Christian, especially his feckless weakness, easily manipulated into actions that go a step beyond his desires (Phil Davis is very good as a darkly Iago-ish Ned Young, using Christian’s popularity to his own ends).

However, the film itself is a little too traditional. Using Bligh’s trial (all captains who lost their ship were placed on trial to judge their responsibility) as a framing device brings us slightly too many interjections of the “and then you did this” variety – even if it allows actors as impressive as Olivier and Edward Fox to narrate us through the film. This stodgy structure carries us into a narrative that is professionally handled but lacks inspiration, ticking off events but not giving them a force outside of the performances of the actors. The film is competently but not inspiringly made, and never quite captures the sense of the epic that the location and scale should bring.

Perhaps this is because a true-to-life version of the mutiny is a little less traditionally dramatic. Despite some truly impressive performances from the leads (and the rest of the superbly chosen cast), it never quite shakes off the feeling of being a history lesson.

Hannibal (2001)

Anthony Hopkins rides again in the terrible Hannibal

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Anthony Hopkins (Hannibal Lecter), Julianne Moore (Clarice Starling), Gary Oldman (Mason Verger), Ray Liotta (Paul Krendler), Frankie R Faison (Barney Matthews), Giancarlo Giannini (Chief Inspector Rinaldo Pazzi), Francesca Neri (Allegra Pazzi), Zeljko Ivanek (Dr Cordell Doemling)

For Dino De Laurentis, The Silence of the Lambs was always the one that got away. Owning the movie rights to the Lecter character, de Laurentis allowed Orion, producers of The Silence of the Lambs, to use the character name for free. De Laurentis was desperate to make his own Hannibal Lecter film, to cash in on Lambs success – so much so he would have put any old crap on the screen so long as it was connected to Lecter. Perhaps Thomas Harris wanted to test that out with his novel Hannibal, a blatantly for-the-money piece of pulp.

Hannibal is everything that Silence of the Lambs is not. Where Jonathan Demme’s film was subtle, insidious and unsettling this is brash, gory and garish. Harris’ serial killer works always circled around the possibility of tipping into a sort of Poesque-Gothic netherworld. Hannibal dives in head first, reinventing its central character as a sort of Robin Hood of murderous psychopaths and introducing everything from vengeful faceless paedophiles, to Dantesque murders and man-eating hogs. The plot, such as it is, sees Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) living under an assumed identity in Florence. Back in America he is being hunted not only by Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore) but also Mason Verger (Gary Oldman, unbilled under a host of make-up) who wants revenge after being hideously disfigured by Lecter. Will Lecter turn the tables on these adversaries?

Both Jonathan Demme and Jodie Foster were offered more money than they knew what to do with for this film. Both turned it down, citing the book – and its grotesque and bizarre outcome that see Lecter and Starling becoming lover-killers together – as the major factor. Foster in particular was out-spoken about how she saw the books extremity as a betrayal of the work she did with the character in the first film. 

No such concern for Hopkins though, who took a bumper pay cheque to return. Hopkins always said Lecter was an easy role to play – basically a creepy voice and a lot of actorly tricks – and it certainly makes it easy for Hopkins to coast through the part here. Really Hopkins treats the role no differently from the countless chat shows where he had been asked to say “Hello Claressse”, the only real difference being he was paid about $20million to do it here. This is Hopkins on unthinking autopilot, in a film that tries to play up the black comedy but instead becomes a ludicrous, offensive farce, drowning in blood.

Ridley Scott directs and his painterly visuals and mastery of the epic shot strips comes at the cost of the very things that made the original film so involving and tense. The Hitchcockian suspense and intimacy of Demme’s direction is jettisoned. Instead everything is a dialled up to a brightly coloured 11. The entire film mistakes gore, blood and overblown, cartoonish villainy for horror. Watching people being mauled by wild hogs, or some more unfortunate being lobotomised and made to eat his own brain isn’t scary it’s more gross. And because nothing feels remotely real in this film, it doesn’t even carry much impact.

The entire film is based around the fact that it’s Hannibal we’re paying to see – especially Hopkins reprising the role – so by Jiminiy we better work a little bit to make this lethal killer from Lambs into something a bit closer to an anti-hero. So instead, Lecter is rejigged as a sort of charming, amoral cannibal. The sort of guy who prefers to eat the rude and unmannered, who loves art and is only really dangerous when provoked. The film carefully gives us reasons to dislike everyone Lecter kills, and slowly falls in love with his sinister magnetism. 

This reduces Julianne Moore – in a truly thankless task – trying to both forge some sort of identity for Clarice from the story that is both unique and a continuation of what Jodie Foster did so well in the first film. It’s not entirely her fault that she fails. This is a film that depowers Clarice, that goes as far as it dares to turn her into a moth around Hannibal’s flame. The film backs away from the romance of the book (even if the film hints at it enough), replacing the eventual ending with something almost as stupid but at least doesn’t turn Clarice into a brain guzzling serial killer.

The plot flies around two arcs, one set around Hannibal in Florence the other on his return to America. Both carry no resemblance to the real world. The first does at a least have a decent performance of nervy greed from Giancarlo Giannini as the Italian detective who (wrongly) feels he can go toe-to-toe with Hannibal. The second revolves around Gary Oldman’s (unbilled – due to an argument over billing or a sly joke, depending on who you talk to) repulsive Mason Verger, a villain so revoltingly gothic you can’t believe in him for a second.

The film looks good and has a decent score, but it’s basically a claret splashed mess that can’t decide whether it’s a horror or some sort of black comedy. It settles for being nothing at all. A truly terrible movie, where everyone is there for the money and I imagine no one thought about the movie for a second once their work on it was done.

Amistad (1997)

Djimon Hounsou excels as a slave longing for freedom in Amistad

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Djimon Hounsou (Sengbe Pieh/Joseph Cinqué), Matthew McConaughey (Roger Sherman Baldwin), Anthony Hopkins (John Quincy Adams), Morgan Freeman (Theodore Joadson), Nigel Hawthorne (President Martin van Buren), David Paymer (John Forsythe), Pete Postlethwaite (William S Holabird), Stellan Skarsgård (Lewis Tappen), Razaaq Adoti (Yamba), Abu Bakaar Fofanah (Fala), Anna Paquin (Isabella II), Chiwetel Ejiofor (James Covey), Peter Firth (Captain Fitzgerald), Jeremy Northam (Judge Coglin), Xander Berkeley (Ledger Hammond), Arliss Howard (John C Calhoun)

After the American Revolution, independence left one issue in America that would profoundly split the country: slavery. This was a land divided, between abolitionists and plantation owners, the more emancipation-minded North and slave states of the South. Slavery was – and remains – the ugly stain on the American soul. Steven Spielberg’s film uses a significant court case of its day to shine a light on these contrasting and conflicting priorities in American society throughout much of the early 19th century, that would eventually lead to civil war.

The film tells the true story of the slave revolt on the Spanish slaver ship Amistad. Here the slaves, led by Joseph Cinqué (Djimon Hounsou) escaped captivity, rose up and killed most of the crew (leaving just two men alive to sail the ship) and tried to return to their home in Sierra Leone. Arrested by an American naval ship while collecting fresh water, the slaves are transported to Connecticut where they find themselves on trial as escaped slaves, facing charges of piracy and murder. Their cause is taken up by Northern abolitionists Lewis Tappen (Stellan Skarsgård) and his black associate Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman), and their lawyer Roger Sherman Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) a property lawyer. However, the case’s international implications for slavery attracts the concern of President Martin van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne), eager to support the prosecution, while former President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins), a lawyer and opponent of slavery, offers his advice to the defence.

Spielberg’s film has just the right balance of human interest and humanitarian concern to overcome its slight air of a civics lesson. Although largely a courtroom drama, what the film is really trying to do is capture in one moment the troubling contradiction of the land of the free built on slaves, and give a voice and empathy to the slaves themselves. 

Although some have criticised this as a “white saviour” film, I feel that’s unfair. This is a film that starts and ends with Cinqué’s story and filters America through his perception. We can well understand why he rages at his lack of comprehension of laws that can be adjusted, court decisions overturned or how words can be twisted to take on other meanings. A film front and centred, say, by Matthew McConaughey’s Baldwin and focusing on journey from seeing this as just another case into a crusade would be a white saviour film. Instead the white characters drop in and out of the story as the narrative requires, and it’s the struggles and courage of the black characters that form the heart of the narrative.

Spielberg also brings to life the cruelty and inhumanity of slavery and what it does to all of us. The film opens with the confined, appalling conditions of the slave ship while Cinqué (with hands running with blood) tries to release a nail from the wood which he will use to free himself from his chains. The film intriguingly opens without the African characters being translated – giving us a sense of their isolation and perhaps also stressing how different they are from the Western “civilisation” that has taken them from their homes. 

It isn’t until half way through the film, until a translator is found for Cinqué, that the film gives us the backstory that Cinqué has struggled to communicate. Spielberg spares no punches in showing the violence of abduction, the brutality and casual slaughter of the slavers, the starvations, the floggings that end in blood sprayed death, the cramped conditions practically designed to weed out the weak. A mother chooses drowning for herself and her child rather than life on the ship. Later the slavers chain unwanted slaves to a bag of rocks and cast them overboard to reduce their cargo load. If there was any doubt about the heart-rending evil behind slavery, it’s removed from your mind.

It also serves to hammer home the injustice of America’s own system. Under political pressure – van Buren is worried about the reaction of both Spain and the Southern States to the Africans being found innocent – the trial encounters interference and appeals every step of the way. It’s a system that prides itself on being the greatest in the world, but shows time and time again how it can be weighted against the weakest. The courtroom scenes – skilfully directed and played – show time and time lawyers valuing obscure property laws above right and wrong. And we are brought time and time again to the reactions and lack of understanding of the African characters, who come from a society where there is no equivocation and no words equivalent to “usually” or “perhaps”.

The film perhaps does take a little too long over its various legal machinations, and could do with losing a few minutes here and there. But that would be to sacrifice its many strengths. Looking wonderful, with a marvellous score by John Williams (riffing on the American pipes and African tribal influences), one of the strongest acting companies Spielberg ever assembled does outstanding work. Carrying much of the film is Djimon Hounsou, who makes Cinqué anything but a victim – he is a proud, defiant and intelligent man, humble enough about his qualities but quick to act to defend his rights. Uncowed but infuriated by the situation he finds himself in, he is never a passenger but at all times a key figure in his own liberation, even if his legal case must be fought by whites.

McConaughey enjoys himself under a bad wig, glasses and dirty teeth as the lawyer Baldwin, ambitious but with more than an air of decency. Postlethwaite is at his quietly authoritative best as his opposition counsel. Freeman lends the film a large part of his grace and dignity in a small, observant part of the freed-slave turned abolitionist, with Skarsgård more political as his white colleague. Hawthorne makes a van Buren a slightly flustered, impatient figure. Peter Firth demonstrates a great contempt for slavery behind an imperious exterior.

The film’s highlight performance though is Hopkins’ Oscar-nominated turn as John Quincy Adams. Adjusting his physicality to match the ageing ex-President, Hopkins captures his slightly nasal Massachusetts twang and adds a significant amount of twinkly charm and wry shrewdness to this adept political operator. A large chunk of the film’s final 20 minutes is given over to Hopkins, with the highlight a long monologue of Adams speech to the Supreme Court (in actuality a speech over eight hours in length!), that is a tour-de-force of skilled showmanship. It’s Hopkins’ last great performance of the 1990s. 

Spielberg’s Amistad is a superb courtroom drama but also a heartfelt condemnation of the inhumanity man can show to man. It never forgets either that while this was a victory, it was only a skirmish not the war. While the film at times overplays the inevitability of Civil War (which did not exactly start over this issue), it skilfully shows the divide in the American culture between abolition and slavery – and how many felt for the first cause, but feared the supporters of the second so much they would rather not address it. Either way, Amistad may at times be a little dry – but that gives its moments of emotion even more force.

The Lion in Winter (1968)

Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole are the feuding royals in The Lion in Winter

Director: Anthony Harvey

Cast: Peter O’Toole (Henry II), Katharine Hepburn (Eleanor of Aquitaine), Anthony Hopkins (Richard the Lionhard), John Castle (Prince Geoffrey), Nigel Terry (Prince John), Timothy Dalton (Philip II), Jane Merrow (Alais), Nigel Stock (Captain William Marshall)

James Goldman’s play The Lion in Winter did solid but not spectacular business on Broadway. But when it came to film, it surfed a wave of popularity for stories about British history and became one of the most financially successful films of its year, winning three Oscars (including for Goldman). Even more than that, it went on to be West Wing President Jed Bartlett’s favourite movie of all time. I think we know which prize is the most treasured.

Christmas 1183 (including an ahistorical Christmas tree and gift wrapped presents and all) and Henry II (Peter O’Toole), king of England and huge chunks of France, wants nothing more than family around him to mark the occasion. Problem is, this is possibly the more dysfunctional family ever. His Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn) has been under “home arrest” for ten years in her castle, and his children Richard (Anthony Hopkins), Geoffrey (John Castle) and John (Nigel Terry) seem to take it in turns to conspire against their father, their allegiances shifting faster than even they can sometimes follow. For added complexity, Henry is living with his late eldest son’s intended Alais (Jane Merrow) as husband and wife and her half-brother the new King of France Philip II (Timothy Dalton) is joining the family for Christmas. Over one night, this family will fight, feud and change pacts and allegiances until hardly anyone knows where the games end and the hate begins.

Anthony Harvey’s film is a stately, often wordy, faithful reconstruction of Goldman’s script that gives front-and-centre to the often scintillating dialogue between the family members, that leans just the right side of ahistorical (sample line: “Hush dear, Mummy’s fighting”) but frequently allows it’s top-of-the-line cast to let rip on some glorious speeches and dialogue duets crammed with ideas, wordplay, character and wit. Harvey therefore basically decides to sit back as much as possible and allow the actors do the work, using a mixture of medium shots and close-ups to bring the focus as much as possible to the Broadway-style staging or into the actor’s faces. He also uses the strength of the performers to allow for a series of long takes as they burn through pages of Goldman’s dialogue. The fact that there is hardly an interesting shot in the film, and its visual language never matches it’s verbal fire is a shame, but a price the film thinks worth paying.

And it matters little when Harvey is able to work as well with actors as he does here. All the performers are at the top of their game. Katharine Hepburn (winning her fourth Oscar, in a tie with Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl) has the perfect level of acute intelligence and imperious arrogance for Eleanor. But Harvey encourages from her a softness at crucial moments, that in-between the barn-storming speeches and verbal putdowns, Hepburn finds moments of quiet sadness and loneliness – a sense that sometimes ten years of imprisonment means she has had enough of all this – that are some of her most affecting work on screen. She’s hilarious but deeply moving – and totally believable as one of the most powerful women of the middle ages. 

She also is matched perfectly with O’Toole. Playing a 50-year old King at 35, O’Toole brings all the fire and charisma of his personality to the part, in a film where he perfectly balances the larger-than-life gusto of Henry II with his own personal disappointments, guilt and sorrow. O’Toole had already triumphed once as the charismatically brilliant king in Becket (for which he was also Oscar nominated, as he was here), but this performance is even better. Not only is his facility with the dialogue faultless, he also utterly convinces as the sort of awe-inspiring figure who dominates every room he’s in not just with force of character but the acuity and sharpness of his intellect. This might be his finest screen performance – and the one where he was most cheated of the Oscar (losing to a highly active campaign, criticised at the time, from Cliff Robertson in Charly).

To fill the cast out around these pros at the top of their game, Harvey raided British theatre to pluck some promising gems from British Theatre, more or less all of them here in their film debut. Anthony Hopkins is marvellously proud, forceful but just a few beats behind most of the others as a Richard who says what he means and sticks to it. Timothy Dalton is his polar opposite (and equally brilliant) as a Philip II who never says what he means and manipulates with a playful ease everyone he meets. John Castle (an actor who never had the career he should have had) is smugly unlikeable and coldly superior as the unliked middle-brother Geoffrey, while Nigel Terry is a snivelling punching bag as two-faced coward John. Jane Merrow is heartfelt and earnest as Alais, the only unquestionably kind and good person in this bunch.

These characters rotate sides and allegiances over the course of one evening, raging at each other like a medieval Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The brilliance of the dialogue never stops entertaining – although towards the end the film loses a bit of energy (it probably peaks with Henry’s loud double bluff of dragging the family in the middle of the night to a wedding he has no intention of seeing performed), perhaps partly because the film itself never really comes to flight as something cinematic. This is despite the decision to downplay the glamour – costumes are simple and look lived in (the cast wore them for hours off set to make them look lived in) and sets are far from pristine. It perhaps contributes to the slightly mundane feel of the filmmaking.

But the tricks are all in the dialogue and perhaps the film works best with an interval and a chance to take stock. There are several marvellous scenes, even if the constant feuding and side changing does wear you out after a while. But it’s a treat for the acting. Hepburn and O’Toole are simply at the top of their game, and the rest of the cast more than keep up with them. With an excellently imposing score from John Barry (also Oscar-winning), it’s a shame the film itself is a little too flatly and uninspiringly filmed with a murky lack of visual interest, but there are more than enough qualities for you to issue a pardon.

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

Gary Oldman prowls the night as Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Cast: Gary Oldman (Count Dracula), Winona Ryder (Mina Murray), Anthony Hopkins (Professor Abraham van Helsing), Keanu Reeves (Jonathan Harker), Richard E. Grant (Dr Jack Seward), Cary Elwes (Lord Arthur Holmwood), Billy Campbell (Quincy P Morris), Sadie Frost (Lucy Westenra), Tom Waits (Renfield)

In the 90s Francis Ford Coppola planned a series of high Gothic films of classic monster stories, kick starting the plans with his own production of Dracula (the only other film that came of this was Kenneth Branagh’s equally operatically overblown Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). Going back to the story of the original novel (more or less), Coppola presented a deliberately high-intensity, theatrical, over-the-top version of Stoker’s tale that becomes as overbearing as it is visually impressive.

In 1462 Vlad the Impaler (Gary Oldman) renounces God and becomes Dracula, after false news of his death leads to his wife (Winona Ryder) committing suicide and being damned by the church. Over four hundred years later, the immortal vampire Dracula plans to travel to England, with his plans unwittingly aided by his solicitor Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves). His interests are peaked all the more when he sees a picture of Harker’s fiancée Mina (Winona Ryder again) – the reincarnation of his dead wife. Dracula heads to England, preying on Mina’s friend Lucy (Sadie Frost) leading to an alliance of Lucy and Mina’s friend, led by Professor van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) to combat Dracula’s villainy and save Mina from her own dark temptations to join the besotted Vampire.

Coppola’s film doubles down on Gothic romance, thundering through the action with everything dialled up to 11. The (rather good) score hammers home every beat, the camera swoops and zooms through a parade of tricks, wipes and dynamic angles with cross fades frequently throwing two images on screen at the same time. It makes for a sensual – in more ways than one – overload, but also a rather oppressive viewing experience, with no respite or sense of calm but every single scene delivered with stomach churning acceleration.

It’s a film directed with a deliberate operatic style, that celebrates (and makes no attempt to hide) its set-based theatricality. The opening sequence sets the tone with its Kurosawa inspired costumes in front of an Excalibur style blood-red sky, with battle scenes (and impalings) staged as an elaborate puppet show. Oldman – with a hammy Eastern European accent that you could wade through like treacle – then rages and roars over his wives crumpled body, stabbing a cross that leaks blood all while images are cross-cut showing his wives demise and the beginnings of his own monstrous transformation. The film doesn’t ease up from there.

To be honest Coppola massively over-eggs the pudding, producing an over-blown monstrosity of a film that shouts and shouts and shouts and drains all subtlety from every frame. In particular the sexual undertones of Vampirism – and the harsh male judgement of female sexuality – that the book explores are placed unsubtly front and centre. Every vampire attack is presented as a positive ravishing, Frost and Ryder writhing orgasmically (poor Frost has to undergo the indignity of being humped and bitten by a Dracula in part human-part wolf form) while boobs are left on display after every single assault. From an early scenes that sees Lucy and Mina gawping at a pornographically illustrated Arabian Nights, we are left in no doubt that IT’S ABOUT SEX YOU KNOW.

Coppola shows no restraint at all in his directing, which leaves nothing to the imagination, and ends up leaving the actors adrift between a film that is part serious attempt to film the book and part ludicrous bodice ripper, like the cheapest 60s salacious horror film from the worst excesses of Hammer.

It certainly leaves the actors adrift. Oldman gives it a go with gusto, even if he seems completely lost as to what tone this character should hit (is he a monster, a lost soul, a conflicted lover, a megalomaniac – who knows?). Anthony Hopkins channels Orson Welles with the sort of ham that was to become more-and-more his go to in later years. Winona Ryder does her best with a role that oscillates wildly between Good Girl and Minx. She’s saddled with an English accent, which restrains like a straitjacket. Tom Waits has fun as the insane Renfield (here imprisoned in a crazy asylum that resembles a medieval dungeon).

The rest of the performances are pretty much abysmal. Poor Keanu Reeves is left ruthlessly exposed, horrendously miscast as a stiff-upper lip English lawyer in a performance that surely goes down somewhere in history as one of the worst ever. His acting here would barely scrap by in a school play, his delivery of the dialogue wooden beyond belief and some talcum powder added to his hair for the film’s later sections only makes him look ridiculous. Reeves is a decent performer in the right role, but he was never worst case than this. But then the rest of the cast are pretty much just as bad: Frost is out-right awful, hopelessly unable to make Lucy anything other than a slut, while Grant, Campbell and Elwes are all wooden and dull to a man.

The film does get some points for reverting closer to the plot of the book – unlike many versions – although the addition of the love story between Dracula and Mina is marred by tonal problems and the utter lack of chemistry between Oldman and Ryder (they famously fell out on set and the film never recovers). Coppola directs the film with no discipline at all, and no sense of balance between spectacle and story. While it has many merits in its design – it won no less than three Oscars and the costumes, make-up for Oldman and much of its look and style are flawless – it’s basically a pretty over-bearing and dreadful film that shouts at the viewer so long and so hard that it becomes easier in the end to laugh at it rather than with it. A sad misfire.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins carry out a strange dance in the compelling The Silence of the Lambs

Director: Jonathan Demme

Cast: Jodie Foster (Clarice Starling), Anthony Hopkins (Dr Hannibal Lecter), Scott Glenn (Jack Crawford), Ted Levine (James “Buffalo Bill” Gumb), Anthony Heald (Dr Frederick Chilton), Brooke Smith (Catherine Martin), Diane Baker (Senator Ruth Martin), Kasi Lemmons (Ardelia Mapp), Frankie Faison (Barney Matthews)

Is there a more unlikely Oscar winner than The Silence of the Lambs? In fact, double down on that: is there a more unlikely film to have won all five of the Big Ones – Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay – only the third film in history to have achieved that (It Happened One Night and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest being the others)? Re-watching the film, it’s actually a triumphant vindication for Hollywood to have chosen a thriller for the ages, a complex and intriguing puzzle wrapped in an unsettling outer layer of thrills and horror, as if the academy was (late in the day) finally tipping an award-lined hat to the film’s spiritual grandfather, Hitchcock himself.

Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is a trainee FBI agent, in the final weeks before her graduation. Out of the blue she is plucked from Quantico by the head of the Behavioural Science Unit, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), to interview notorious psychiatrist-turned-cannibalistic-serial-killer Dr Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), now interned in a psychiatric prison-cum-dungeon in Baltimore. Crawford hopes the Lecter might be able to shed light on the motives of “Buffalo Bill” (Ted Levine), a serial killer kidnapping and skinning young women across a number of states. Lecter can shed some light – but the price is an opportunity to investigate further into the psyche of the determined and ambitious Starling. A three-way game of cat-and-mouse between Bill, Clarice and Lecter soon starts to emerge.

Demme’s film is a sublimely made entertainment that brilliantly pulls together the trappings of multiple genres (there are splashes of horror, thriller, police procedural, romance and black comedy to name but a few) into an unsettlingly tense and engrossing whole. It’s truly a film Hitchcock would have been proud of, a masterfully assembled thrill ride where every shot serves a purpose, and each scene is carefully constructed to establish a clear story and push the audience’s buttons. It has two of the best tense “prolonged misdirects” in film history (wittily signposted in advance by an early car chase that is revealed in a pull-away to be a training exercise in Quantico – don’t trust your eyes!) and it brilliantly immerses you in the world and emotions of Clarice Starling.

Demme’s aim was to get us to empathise above all with Clarice, as she descends into the dark underbelly of this terrifying world. Demme uses a carefully selected combination of POV shots and straight-to-camera addresses to deliberately put us into the position of actually “being” Clarice Starling. From following her perspective through rooms and corridors, to seeing the characters she is talking to address the camera directly as if talking to us, through to carefully placed close-up shots that allow us to study the thoughts and feelings travelling across Clarice’s face, it brilliantly allows us to invest overwhelmingly in her without us even really noticing we are doing it.

And of course that is put together with Jodie Foster’s extraordinarily brilliant performance in the role. One of the film’s many strengths is exploring the nature of being a determined, brave and ambitious – but still slight and feminine – woman in the alpha-male world of crime investigation. Clarice fends off in virtually every scene not just discrimination and instant judgement, but a parade of half-spoken advances and flirtations from male colleagues. Foster’s brilliance is to make a character who is determined but humane, slightly vulnerable while never weak. She’s the key driver of the story, but also both an insider and outsider in her world, partly motivated by a desire to prove herself, partly by an attempt to vanquish haunting childhood memories of weakness and loss.

It’s these feelings under the surface that attract the interest of Hannibal Lecter, and the strange dance between them is the heart of the film’s appeal and it’s magic. Why does Lecter want to know about the facts of Starling’s life (that quid pro quo he archly asks for)? Does he want to analyse her? Does he want to help? Does he want to amuse himself with her terrible memories? Or is he just bored? He hardly seems to be certain himself, but the intimacy shared revelations provide is neatly played with by Demme in sequences between the two (they barely share the frame by the way more than twice) that hum with a tension of danger, but also a thrill of illicit romance, mixed with incestuous interest (Starling the orphan, Lecter the father-like man of wisdom helping her catch the killer). And it works with us as well – we are so invested in Starling that, just like her, we end up liking Lecter (even though we know we shouldn’t).

Of course it helps that Hannibal Lecter is portrayed in a performance of magnetic, career-defining brilliance by Hopkins. Hopkins modestly claimed playing Lecter was easy once you mastered the voice and the physicality – but that’s to downplay the extraordinary skill mastering those aspects concern, and the bravura brilliance with which Hopkins plays to the camera but never tips into absurdism. It’s an arch, knowing, winking performance that also carries with it an intense, psychotic menace, a delirious capacity for violence (as we find out). Demme introduces the character sublimely – after the build-up, his ram-rod stillness, polite manner and refined behaviour are somehow even more unsettling. Sure Brian Cox in Manhunter may be more conventionally chilling, but Hopkins is like an elemental demon playing with our childhood bogeyman fears, a guy who seems even more dangerous as he playfully chats one minute, then beats you to death with a truncheon the next.

The scenes between these two characters dominate the film (even if they take up no more than ten minutes of its runtime), and their relationship (beautifully shot as a game of one cagey upmanship that turns into semi-flirting, that turns into something in between) defines the movie and its legacy. Lecter’s magnetism was such that in later movies he would increasingly become an anti-hero of sorts, a lord of misrule rather than a brutal and indiscriminate killer, but here he’s terrifying and satanic, just as Starling is courageous and noble as the lady on a quest.

And that quest targets Buffalo Bill – a deeply unsettling performance of psychological unease and self-loathing by Ted Levine. The film was controversial at the time for its killer being both a transsexual and gay (although the film makes clear it’s a desire to be anyone apart from who he is that drives all these feelings), especially as at the time these groups were barely represented positively in the movies. But it also makes for singularly unsettling character, living in a subterranean cave-like basement, surrounded by moths, his voice slurred childishly while carrying no sense of shame or regret for his actions.

The hunt for Bill is the film’s story, and Demme uses the devices of cinema to make this as tense and unsettling an experience as needed. The camera prowls terrifyingly around Bill’s domains. Howard Shore’s score makes a deeply unnerving use of mournful refrains. Frequently scenes – such as the post-mortem inspection of a victim’s body – are often silently scored, making the mechanical noises of the investigator’s trade (such as the loudly clicking and whirring camera) deeply jarring. The film is grim, but relies more on reaction rather than bathing us in horrors, and implication brings the greatest terror. Every sequence of the film is perfectly assembled to leave us struggling to breathe – not least as events place Starling in more and more peril.

With its playful sense of black comedy, mixed with genuine terror and thrills, The Silence of the Lambs genuinely feels like the film Hitchcock was born to make. Everything in the film is perfectly assembled to serve the film’s aims – there is not a foot wrong in its assembly, and it’s sad that Demme never hit these sort of heights again. But the film is like a twisted companion piece to Psycho (only better), and in Hopkins and Foster produced two landmark performances. While the film engrosses us in Starling’s struggles in a man’s world, it also overwhelms us with Hopkins’ devilish magnetism and dark mystery. And what to make of the relationship between Starling and Lecter? It’s a mystery so enigmatic that it continues to grip today and it’s the secret behind the success of this compelling masterpiece.

Nixon (1995)

Anthony Hopkins triumphs as Nixon in Oliver Stone’s surprisingly sympathetic biopic

Director: Oliver Stone

Cast: Anthony Hopkins (Richard Nixon), Joan Allen (Pat Nixon), James Woods (HR Haldeman), Powers Boothe (Alexander Haig), Larry Hagman (“Jack Jones”), Ed Harris (E. Howard Hunt), Dan Hedaya (Trini Cardoza), Bob Hoskins (J. Edgar Hoover), Madeline Kahn (Martha Mitchell), EG Marshall (John Mitchell), David Paymer (Ron Ziegler), David Hyde Pierce (John Dean), Paul Sorvino (Henry Kissinger), Mary Steenburgen (Hannah Nixon), JT Walsh (John Ehrlichman), Sam Waterston (Richard Helms), Brian Bedford (Clyde Tolson), Tom Bower (Francis Nixon), Kevin Dunn (Charles Colson), Annabeth Gish (Julie Nuxon), Tom Goldwyn (Harold Nixon), Saul Rubinek (Herbert G Klein)

In 1995, there was one person the chronicler of the 1970s American experience, Oliver Stone, hadn’t covered: Richard M Nixon. The man who was the embodiment of the dark scar on the American consciousness, the grim, unlovable presence behind the war in Vietnam, the protests and the deep, never-ending wound of Watergate, who seemed to drag the country further and further into the abyss. The man who besmirched the office, the least popular president ever, the national shame. With Stone’s searing attacks on everything from Vietnam policy to the conspiracies behind the Kennedy assassination, you’d expect his film on Nixon to be a condemnation. What people didn’t expect was a film as strikingly even-handed as this, which recasts Nixon not as a gloating villain, but a Shakespearean figure, a Greek tragedy of a man destroyed by chronic character flaws.

Opening with a crushed Nixon, like a drunken Gollum cradling his precious, listening to his precious tapes in the bowels of the White House during his final days in office, the film is told in a fascinatingly non-linear style – loosely falling into two acts, cutting backwards and forwards in time. The first act covers most of Nixon’s career up to the presidency, focusing on his Quaker childhood and the influence of his mother Hannah (Mary Steenburgen), his defeat in the 1960 election to Kennedy and his years rebuilding his political standing. The second half takes a more linear approach, covering a Presidency becoming increasingly bogged down in the inept cover-up of Watergate and increasingly desperate attempts to save his presidency, intermixed with foreign policy successes.

What is really striking is that Stone’s movie finds a great deal of sympathy for this troubled and complex man. He’s a man who has greatness in his grasp, dedicated, intelligent and with vision – but fatally undermined by self-loathing, self-pity and a bubbling resentment about not having the love of the people. Like Lear raging against the storm, or Macbeth bemoaning the impact of his vile deeds, Stone’s Nixon becomes a sympathetic figure, even while the film makes no apologies for his actions, his aggressive bombing of Cambodia (the film notes at its end the bombing led directly to the massacres of the Khmer Rouge) or his failures to claim any responsibility for how he caused his own end.

Stone’s empathetic vision of Nixon is shaped largely by Anthony Hopkins’ titanic performance in the lead role. Hopkins makes no real effort – beyond teeth and hair – to look like Nixon, but brilliantly embodies Nixon’s awkward physicality and, above all, his angry, bitter, resentful personality. It’s not an imitation, but it totally captures him. Hopkins has got it, and the disintegration of Nixon over the course of the film into the shambling, miserable, twitching, even slightly unhinged mess he became in the final days of his presidency is astounding. 

It works because Hopkins never loses sense of the potential for greatness in Nixon – sure he’s socially awkward (Hopkins superbly captures Nixon’s awkward grin, his stumbling nervousness in conversation), but politically he’s assured, confident and has huge insight into realpolitik. His flaw is that he wants to be both the master politician and the people’s champ, to be Nixon and JFK, to have the people cheer him to the rafters. It’s a longing that turns to resentment, fuelling insecurity and fear, that causing him to be so afraid of being cheated that he cheats first and bigger.

It’s that potential for greatness that swims through Stone’s masterfully made, electric film. Stone’s love for mixing film stock, fake newsreel footage, snazzy camerawork, switching colour stock, stylistically eclectic sound and music choices and bombastic lecturing comes to the fore here – and I accept it won’t be for everyone. But for me it works. It’s a big, dramatic movie because it covers an epic theme. From its early echoes of Citizen Kane – the White House as Xanadu, those missing 18 ½ minutes of the tape Nixon’s “Rosebud” – through to the accelerated pace and film stock as events spiral out of the President’s control, it’s an explosion of style that really works, even if there are points which are too on-the-nose (a scene where Nixon’s dinner talk of war is interrupted by a steak that leaks gallons of blood as he cuts into it, is clumsy in the extreme).

Stone’s theories revolve around the true villain being the government-financial power system itself, a grindingly oppressive beast chews up and spits out the men who think they can ride it. Nixon may know about the danger of the system, but he’s as powerless as anyone else. Its tendrils extend everywhere, from the creepily domineering CIA chief Helms (Sam Waterston, unsettlingly intimidating in scenes restored in the director’s cut) to the shady Texan money interests (led by an excellent Larry Hagman of all people) who sure-as-shit want to get rid of that liberal, Cuban surrender monkey Kennedy, by any means necessary (“Say Kennedy dont run in 64?”). 

Nixon wants to control it, to do some good – and the film is excellent at stressing how Nixon’s poverty-filled Quaker background gave him a drive to achieve but also a chippy insecurity and moral standards from his imperious mother he can never hope to meet – but what hope does he have? In any case, his own deep moral failings doom any chance of forging his own goals, sucking him into a quagmire where long-running dirty deeds, shady deals and unedifying company consume him. “When they look at you they see what want to be. When they look at me they see what they are” Nixon complains to the painting of Kennedy, the rival whom he can never eclipse, the man born with all the advantages Nixon never had, the millionaire embraced by the people while the working-class Nixon is reviled. It’s these resentments that consume and destroy Nixon, and Stone presents this as an epic tragedy of a great politician, crushed by his fundamentally human flaws.

Around Hopkins, Stone assembles a brilliant cast. Joan Allen is superb as Nixon’s loving but insightful wife who won’t shy to speak truth to power. James Woods is perfect as the bullishly aggressive, fiercely loyal Haldeman. Paul Sorvino does a wonderfully arch impersonation of Kissinger, always keeping his distance. David Hyde Pierce makes a smoothly innocent but determinedly self-preserving John Dean, Powers Boothe a wonderful cold Alexander Haig. Only Bob Hoskins gives a performance slightly too broad as Hoover – but he still laces the role with a crackling menace.

Nixon is a great film, an explosion of style (perhaps at times a little too much), which painstakingly strips bare the President’s psyche – his doubt, guilt, bitterness, resentments and finally overwhelming self-pity. Powered by a titanically well-observed performance by Anthony Hopkins, who is just about perfect in every frame – every nuance feels real – Nixon is a wallow in the dark underbelly of America, which hints throughout at the even greater dangers that lie under the surface, the powerful system maintaining the status quo that sees presidents come and go, but never allows any real change. It’s a remarkable film.