Mark Reviews Movies

HANNIBAL RISING

2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Peter Webber

Cast: Gaspard Ulliel, Gong Li, Dominic West, Rhys Ifans, Kevin McKidd, Richard Brake

MPAA Rating: R  (for strong grisly content and some language/sexual references)

Running Time: 1:53

Release Date: 2/9/07


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Review by Mark Dujsik

Oh, Hannibal Lecter—the suave, cultured genius who just happens to be a serial killer. Consider his progression in Thomas Harris' novels: a completely side component in Red Dragon, a cunning adviser in The Silence of the Lambs, and the anti-hero of a revenge plot against him in Hannibal. Now we have Hannibal Rising, Harris' attempt to tell the origin of that most infamous cannibal. One can't help but question the author's motives in writing the newest Lecter tome, especially when you consider the movie adaptation has been released just a little over two months after the book itself was published. There were major problems with the book of Hannibal (and even more with the movie version), primarily in that it was written to be filmed. Hannibal Rising is clearly in the same boat but to a more severe degree.  Harris himself wrote the screenplay for this origin story, and to reiterate, it's been only two months since the book came out. Take that however you will, but there's an even more pressing concern about the story of a young Lecter: It isn't necessary. Lecter is fascinating because he's an enigma; his deadly allure more appealing because his past is a mystery.

Now we have an eight-year-old Hannibal (Aaron Thomas), living in Lecter Castle (seriously) in Lithuania, 1944. As the Germans retreat and the Soviets reclaim the country, the Lecter family leaves their castle and heads to their smaller abode in the country. A Soviet tank arrives at the house looking for water, and in a battle between the tank and a German Stuka bomber, Lecter's parents are killed, leaving him and his younger sister Mischa (Helena Lia Tachovska) to fend for themselves. A group of rejected SS soldiers arrive at the house to hide and chain the children upstairs. As the weather grows colder and food grows scarce, their gazes aim to the children (the movie cuts to each of their head-turns in a groan-tastic moment). Eight years later, Hannibal (Gaspard Ulliel) is back at Lecter Castle, which is now the People's Orphanage. He has nightmares of that night, screaming his little sister's name—the only time he does speak nowadays. His time in the orphanage complete in his mind, he escapes and makes the long trip to Étampes, France, where his widowed aunt-by-marriage Murasaki Shikibu (Gong Li) lives. She takes her nephew in, but even the presence of family cannot stop his nightmares.

Wait, there's more. Lecter finds his aunt at the feet of a statue of a samurai, whose mask just happens to look exactly like the one we fondly remember him wearing in The Silence of the Lambs. Needless to say that he puts it on eventually. Hannibal also trains his speed and reflexes in wooden sword duels with Lady Murasaki, and it slowly begins to feel like the origin of a superhero instead of a serial killer. Dreams of his sister begin to overwhelm him even more, but he cannot remember his captors' names. Obviously something terrible happened in that house on that cold day as the war in Europe was winding to a close, and I don't think it's too unfair to reveal it. As hunger overpowered the soldiers, they decide to kill and eat Mischa. Yes, folks, that's apparently what drove Hannibal Lecter to become a serial killer. His first string of murders is part of a revenge plot, despite his aunt's attempts to console her depraved nephew. "Memory is like a knife; it can hurt you," she says, one of two absolutely dreadful lines Gong Li is forced to intone. Meanwhile, a war crimes inspector out of Paris named Popil (Dominic West) is hunting for the same men for whom Lecter is searching.

So the story itself is weak, but the way Harris imagines Lecter's original sins at least stays true for the most part to the character. After a butcher insults Lady Murasaki, Hannibal decides to end the man's life with the mask and sword from the samurai statue. While the movie is bloody, it's nowhere near as unnecessarily grotesque as Lecter's last adventure. The key point in the first murder scene is not the killing itself but Lecter's response to it. The butcher is dead, decapitated on the ground, and young Hannibal stops for a second. A bird caws; life goes on. It's a simple moment but one that is true to our perception of the cannibalistic sociopath. "The butcher was like butter," he brags to his aunt, one of many similar lines Gaspard Ulliel must choke out. Ulliel is decent as Lecter, with cold eyes and a wicked smile, but the performance is pantomime in the shadow of Anthony Hopkins. How could it not be, though? The revenge plot is generic, and Harris' script has characters all over the place making sure to repeatedly say the name Hannibal Lecter. It's necessary, because without that reminder, this could really be anybody.

While the attempt of explaining Lecter is futile, that's no excuse for Hannibal Rising to be so bland. Director Peter Webber competently tries to give the movie the appropriate mood, but Harris is always undoing it, as character after character attempts to psychoanalyze the young boy. Probably the best analysis comes from that other terrible line Li has to say: "You smell of smoke and blood." That's all we ever needed to know about Hannibal Lecter.

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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