Director : Peter Webber
Screenplay : Thomas Harris (based on the novel by Thomas Harris)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2007
Stars : Gaspard Ulliel (Hannibal), Gong Li (Lady Murasaki), Rhys Ifans (Grutas), Kevin McKidd (Kolnas), Dominic West (Inspector Popil) and Richard Brake (Dortlich), Aaron Thomas (8-Year-Old Hannibal), Helena Lia Tachovska (Mischa)
It's hard to write about Hannibal Lecter without making a culinary reference, so suffice it to say that Hannibal Rising, which ponderously charts the path by which Lecter became a serial killer, is one course too many. There are some stories that are better left untold, and Lecter's origin is one of them. It is much better that the charming, brilliant sociopath who forever associated fava beans and Chianti with cannibalism remain in the dark recesses of the fevered human imagination. After all, what story could possibly explain such a memorable character?
Nevertheless, author Thomas Harris, who first created Lecter in his 1982 novel Red Dragon (brought to the screen twice, once by Michael Mann and once by Brett Ratner) is intent on bringing Lecter's origins to the surface. Harris's screenplay, which is based on his novel released almost simultaneously with the film, is slavishly devoted to the idea that the worst of human evil is explicable--firmly rooted in some form of trauma. Lecter's psychopathology demands something extreme, yet the best Harris can do is drag out the specter of World War II and Nazism to show how an otherwise normal eight-year-old boy became a notorious serial killer.
The film opens in Lithuania in 1944, where the wealthy Lecter family is destroyed in a hail of Russian-German crossfire. Surviving eight-year-old Hannibal (Aaron Thomas) and his younger sister Mischa (Helena Lia Tachovska) are quickly victimized by a gang of thuggish brutes working for the German SS, who not only kill Mischa, but eat her out of desperation, an act that will forever haunt Hannibal and come to define him. He spends the next eight years in a Soviet orphanage, during which time he becomes appropriately hardened, which hones him for vengeance. In a nutshell, Hannibal Rising becomes Death Wish for the serial killer set, with Hannibal methodically tracking down and slaughtering those who did his family wrong.
The problem with this scenario is that it explicates Hannibal Lecter in a way that drains him of the kind of mythic grandeur that had been his defining characteristic. As embodied by Anthony Hopkins the three movies, Hannibal was a character who defied explanation and study; he was beyond the human capacity, which is what made him simultaneously fascinating and repulsive. In Hannibal Rising, he is dragged down to the level of simple explanation, reduced to a nominal list of how's and why's. But, even worse, he is aligned with an extended lineage of vengeful archetypes who too easily invite audience identification. Hannibal's crimes are no longer inexplicable evil, but rather audience-pleasing justice. He's a one-man Star Chamber, albeit one who's judge-jury-executioner mode of justice slowly becomes more and more perverse. Whereas his first murder is a simple hack-and-slice job that ends with a beheading, by the end he is eating people alive.
French actor Gaspard Ulliel looks nothing like Anthony Hopkins, although he shares his steely blue eyes and fierce intelligence. Yet, Ulliel is never able to take Lecter to the operatic heights at which we expect him to exist. He's almost too human, too physical; he lacks that dimension that elevates villains into the mythical. Director Peter Webber (The Girl With the Pearl Earring) clearly wants Hannibal Rising to be a class production, despite all the slicing, dicing, and cannibalism. Unfortunately, he makes the whole affair too artsy and staid for its own good, which results in a plodding pace that induces more eyelid drooping than tension. As inherently unnecessary as Hannibal Rising is, one wishes that Webber could have found some way--any way--to make it at least darkly pleasurable, rather than so dully serious.
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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