Title: Hannibal Rising
Genre: Adventure, Crime, Drama
Director: Peter Webber
Screenwriters: Thomas Harris
Starring: Gaspard Ulliel, Rhys Ifans, Li Gong
Did anyone else think this was going to work? Believe it or not, I thought it might. In the hands of Thomas Harris, Hannibal Lecter’s creator, and Peter Webber, the promising director of Girl With a Pearl Earring, I thought Hannibal Rising could heighten the mystique and fascination surrounding the title character. Prequels don’t have to be purely expository, after all, and there’s no reason — especially for the guy who loved Ridley Scott’s much-maligned 2001 Hannibal — why the legendary cannibal can’t be interesting as a teenager. Oh, there’s the small problem of Anthony Hopkins’ absence, sure, but what can I say: I’m a believer.
My faith was misplaced, and in retrospect rather absurd. Hannibal Rising is pretty much the worst case scenario: a thorough demystification of Lecter, stuffing him full of childhood tragedies and concrete motivations, making him the hero of an absurd revenge plot that will never allow us to see the character the same way again. To the extent it’s possible, the film spoils the entire franchise — and perversely, the fact that the screenplay comes from the pen of Thomas Harris, adapting his own novel, only heightens the violence done upon a timeless classic. How can this be right?
Lecter is played by 22 year-old Frenchman Gaspard Ulliel for the bulk of the film, though not before we see him as a young child, trying valiantly to protect his sister Mischa after their parents are killed in 1944 Lithuania and brutal wartime looters invade their home. The film weirdly pretends that the fate of Mischa is a secret, but in fact it’s obvious from the word go: the men got hungry and ate her rather than starve. But Hannibal makes it through, and after a stint at an orphanage (set up, for reasons that aren’t made clear, in his family’s old castle), he finds a mysterious aunt (Gong Li) who teaches him to fight with a stick, and heads off to medical school — and, eventually, to seek vengeance on the men who, as he intones time and again, ate his sister.
It quickly becomes clear that Hannibal is the hero of this story — not the anti-hero, though the film makes a few perfunctory and non-committal gestures in that direction, but the full-fledged protagonist. The villains he hunts are so vile — over and above the fact that they ate a helpless toddler — that Hannibal, who is at least driven by some serious childhood trauma, has no choice but command our sympathies. But Hannibal Rising goes further than simply acquiescing to this inevitability: early on, a character upbraids Hannibal for “not honoring the human pecking order” by “always hurting the bullies.” And one is hard-pressed to find a better way to hammer home this point than by pitting him against a bunch of ruthless goons who — I hate to repeat myself — ate his five year-old sister.
What this says about Hannibal Lecter — the light it shines on his later behavior, the insight it gives us into his atrocities — is self-defeating from the perspective of the franchise. The mystery is solved; there’s nothing left. The previous films gave us hints of Lecter’s background, but Hannibal Rising puts it into full emotional relief: he’s a traumatized child, full of righteous indignation and unable to control his darker impulses. There’s a small late-film twist that complicates matters just a little bit, but it doesn’t add much nuance, or disrupt the misguided resolution of the character. We now know everything, and it’s a disservice to Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar-winning performance, which suggests so much.
Peter Webber actually delivers a decently effective genre film here, though it runs long and eventually begins a descent into the laughable. There’s a neat scene early on of a gruesome execution in the middle of an idyllically beautiful forest clearing, and Webber is clearly having fun colliding the disparate imagery; the rest is more subdued, though parts recall Kill Bill, and other parts flirt with being genuinely creepy. But the bottom line remains: Hannibal Rising has put Hannibal Lecter in a basic revenge plot that doesn’t need a Hannibal Lecter. In the process, it explains away one of cinema’s legendary enigmas.