(Long Island, N. Y.) Hannibal Lecter. The charismatic, cultured, cannibalistic serial killer was originally introduced to the world by novelist Thomas Harris in the 1981 novel Red Dragon and later popularized into iconic status by films such as Silence of the Lambs. Now Hannibal has returned yet again, and this time it’s in a prequel that explores his early years and how he became the character who would one day be voted the #1 screen villain of all-time by the American Film Institute.
Hannibal Rising is noteworthy in a major way- it’s a Hannibal Lecter movie that actually doesn’t star Sir Anthony Hopkins in the role of the homicidal gourmet. Some may mistakenly believe this to be the first time this has happened in the series, but many discount the 1986 film Manhunter, itself an earlier film adaptation of Red Dragon. Playing Lecter in that film was Scottish actor Brian Cox, whom you might remember as the bad guy from X-Men 2. Manhunter would later be remade in 2002 under the novel’s original name and starring Hopkins.
Due to the fact that Hannibal Rising is a prequel (based on Harris’ 2006 novel) that takes place mostly during Lecter’s late teens/early 20s, coupled with the fact that Hopkins would not reprise his Academy Award-winning role , the part was taken by 23-year old French actor Gaspard Ulliel. Gaspard does a fair job of aping Hopkin’s mannerisms while adding aspects of his own to the character. He turns in a decent performance, but I just wish the guy didn’t sound like he was talking through a mouthful of Campbell’s Chunky soup for 80% of his lines.
The film opens in 1941, when Hannibal is just 8 years old. It was odd seeing the man who would one day serve Ray Liotta’s brains as hors d’oeuvres as an innocent little child, but I got over it. Anyway, his
family is forced to abandon their castle in Lithuania for the safety of their countryside cottage when World War 2 starts hitting a little too close to home. It is here that we learn of the close bond between Hannibal and his younger sister, Mischa (Helena Lia Tachovska).
Due to a number of unfortunate circumstances encountered once they reach the cottage, the adult members of the Lecter family are killed and Hannibal and his sister are then taken hostage by six former Lithuanian militiamen. Stuck together in the dead of winter and cut off from any food, the soldiers perform an unspeakable act on Mischa while Hannibal is forced to watch- an act that would forever alter his very psyche.
Hannibal manages to escape, but he is traumatized. After living in an orphanage for a period, he leaves and seeks out the only relative
he has left- his widowed aunt, the Lady Murasaki Shikibu (Gong Li). The two share an instant connection, despite appearing to be nearly 20 years apart in age, and she takes him in.
And of course, because she’s Japanese, it naturally means she’s also a ninja, so she trains Hannibal to be a ninja warrior. Yes, Hannibal Lecter is a ninja. Seriously.
An apparent genius, Ninja Hannibal begins Medical School in Paris, France, but at the very same time begins seeking out the men that took his precious sister from him all those years ago. And if you’re at all familiar with the character, I’ll give you one guess as to how he takes his revenge on them.
Hannibal Rising is a very solid movie. It doesn’t achieve the heights of Silence of the Lambs, the high water mark for
the series, but it’s tense, entertaining, and even gruesome at times. The direction is top-notch and the performances are good all across the board, aside from Ulliel’s Lecter being such a mush-mouth as stated above.
Still, there are problems. Hannibal spends the entire running time pining away for the sister he lost when he was 8 years old, who couldn’t have been aged any more than 3 or 4 at the time. How attached could any kid be to a 3 year old? The girl didn’t even appear to have a personality, yet Hannibal wakes up screaming her name every night. Okay, maybe I’m being mean here.
I think the real problem with the movie is the whole basis of Hannibal’s origin. When Lecter was introduced in Silence of the Lambs, he was kept inside a glass cell in a maximum-security asylum for a reason. Despite his sophisticated exterior shell, they built him up like he was the very archetype of the raving lunatic and if he managed to get his hands on you, you were done. Period. He was the ultimate boogeyman- a calm, suave gentleman who would as soon eat your face as instruct you on the graces of fine dining. No explanation was given at the time as to why he was what he was.
Now we have that explanation, and it surprisingly (and ill-suitably) paints Hannibal in a sympathetic light. It turns out that Lecter was
a sweet, normal little boy who loved his sister. She’s killed and he takes out the men responsible. That’s hardly the act of a insane, bloodthirsty fiend. Hell, if we took the same exact movie but removed Hannibal and his knife and replaced them with Arnold Schwarzenegger and a machine gun, the movie would suddenly change from horror to a rousing action-adventure. The only difference is that Hannibal eats people, but no real reason is given why he feels compelled to copy the horrific acts of the Lithuanian militiamen, nor why he continues to do it later in life to countless unrelated parties.
Still, despite its problems, Hannibal Rising is a worthy addition to the series. It’s well worth viewing, especially to Lecter fans (and there’s plenty out there, myself included). Bon appétit!