Hannibal Rising Review
There are a lot of nasty things in Hannibal Rising. Multiple murders, child killing, cannibalism, mutilation. The most troubling thing about the film however is its treatment of Hannibal Lecter as a tragic hero. Hannibal Lecter! Hannibal the Cannibal. The depraved serial killer who ate a nurse's tongue, who tried to set a fellow maniac on an FBI agent's family, who cut off a policeman's face and wore it as a mask, who ate a census taker's liver with some fava beans and a nice chanti.
Granted, Lecter's creator Thomas Harris has been gradually softening his most famous character ever since he introduced the good doctor in his 1981 novel, Red Dragon. In that book and the two films based upon it, Lecter is evil personified. He's a sick genius who kills and manipulates purely for his own amusement. In its 1988 sequel, The Silence Of The Lambs and the Oscar winning film it inspired, Lecter's still evil, albeit with a wisp of a soul. Young agent Clarice Starling doesn't exactly redeem him but she coaxes out some sort of a human side. It was this ambiguity that made Lecter fascinating and turned him into a classic fictional character.
And then twelve years later, along came Hannibal, one of the most eagerly awaited books in publishing history and one of the most hotly debated. Breaking away from the police thriller plots of its predecessors, Hannibal is an outrageous exercise in grand guignol, verging on black comedy. If you've only seen Ridley Scott's film adaptation and you thought its scenes of disembowelment, brain eating and men devoured alive by wild pigs were extreme, you should read what Scott left out. Child abuse, bodybuilding lesbians, giant killer eels!
Even more bizarre was the way Harris developed Hannibal and Clarice. Lecter was made considerably more sympathetic. In Hannibal, he's the victim of an even worse maniac and he's given a tragic past to explain his madness - as a child, he saw his beloved sister murdered and cannibalised. Lecter's relationship with Starling, ambiguous in Silence Of The Lambs, comes dangerously close to romance. The notorious ending, which caused Jodie Foster and Jonathan Demme to leave the project, sees the serial killer and the (disgraced) FBI agent end up as a couple on the run together.
Some of us wondered if Thomas Harris was playing a joke on the publishers and readers who had badgered him for years to write another Lecter book. In making the film, Ridley Scott sensibly changed the ending and removed some of the sillier characters and incidents but he sanitised Lecter even further than Harris had. In the film we learned that Hannibal ate "the rude", which was news to us.
Now here's Hannibal Rising, the fourth Lecter story, the fifth film and the first since 1986 not to feature Anthony Hopkins in the role. This is a prequel and Hannibal is only a teenager. And yes, he is indeed the hero. While we're told by various characters that he's a monster, in terms of his actions on the screen, he's an avenging hero. A ruthless, violent and cold-blooded one to be sure but then we've grown used to ruthless heroes. Hannibal's distinguishable from The Punisher and the Denzel Washington character in Man On Fire only by his eating habits.
Hannibal Rising fills out the back-story Thomas Harris wrote for Lecter in Hannibal. It begins in Nazi-occupied Lithuania towards the end of the Second World War. Hitler's forces are retreating from the Soviet army and a small group of Lithuanian collaborators who worked with the SS is looking for a place to lay low. They happen upon a shack that's being used as a hiding place by two orphaned children - the young Hannibal Lecter and his little sister, Mischa. Time passes and the men grow hungry. They're afraid to go out and hunt but they need to eat something.
Years later, the teenage Hannibal (Gaspard Ulliel), traumatised by what happened in that shack, escapes from a Soviet orphanage and manages to make it across the Iron Curtain into Western Europe. Tracking down his aunt by marriage, a French aristocrat (Gong Li), he finds a new home and a comfortable life. He can't escape his demons though. Discovering a taste for killing and for human flesh, he resolves to find the men who killed his sister and make them pay, horribly.
And who can blame him? Whatever your feelings about revenge and taking the law into your own hands, a lad who saw his infant sister killed and eaten is entitled to feel pretty pissed off about it. Despite the movie's pretensions to the contrary, we're obviously supposed to sympathise with the young Lecter. The deck is stacked in his favour. No one he kills in Hannibal Rising doesn't richly deserve it. The leader of the Lithuanian thugs, played by a near-unrecognisible Rhys Ifans, is an absolute ogre. In case we might feel sympathy for one of the more insignificant victims, such as the foul-mouthed butcher, Thomas Harris makes sure we know the man used to hand over Jews to the Nazis. Sympathy gone. Incidentally, the war crimes references give the film a queasy layer of tastelessness.
But what does that leave us with? An obvious and overlong revenge yarn that has almost nothing to do with the character of Hannibal Lecter as we know him. The movie tries hard to form a connection with its predecessors. The giant boars which played a part in Hannibal pop up here and there. Lecter takes to wearing a samurai mask of his aunt's that looks similar to the muzzle he was given in The Silence Of The Lambs. Characters debate his monstrous psychology and shake their heads. But it's to little avail. Thomas Harris has taken the character too far from his origins. I simply don't buy that this is how the terrifying villain of Red Dragon and The Silence Of The Lambs was born.
The French actor who plays the part, Gaspard Ulliel has a striking face but he never really evokes a young Hannibal Lecter. He's too fresh-faced and handsome. The killer from the recent German film, Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer came considerably closer. In fact, if you're thinking about going to see Hannibal Rising, see if there are any cinemas near you still showing Perfume. You'll find it a much more satisfying dose of ghoulishness.
British director Peter Webber, who made Girl With A Pearl Earring, gives Hannibal Rising a handsome, gothic look but he doesn't appear to have been greatly inspired by the material. The pacing is slack and the movie is frankly boring for long stretches, grabbing our interest only when Lecter is spilling blood.
Even the violence isn't particularly ghastly, not by today's standards. Sixteen years ago, The Silence Of The Lambs horrified mass audiences and in 2001 Hannibal's brain-frying sequence made moviegoers squirm but the crowds who will be going to this one have seen the Saw movies and they'll probably be wondering what all the fuss is about. A guy who kills people and eats their cheeks? Big deal!
It's time Thomas Harris moved on. The author wrote Black Sunday as well as those first two Lecter books - he's a brilliant thriller writer when he tries. You wouldn't know it from this effort. Hannibal Rising is a poor film with a weak story and it represents one too many trips to the well. People used to argue about which was the worst Lecter movie. They won't anymore.