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Hannibal Rising (2007) Print E-mail
Friday, 09 February 2007
The idea behind “Hannibal Rising,” novel and movie, is to show the evolution of Hannibal Lecter from nice Lithuanian boy to elegant, sardonic serial killer. Instead, they more clearly show the devolution of Thomas Harris from respected writer of popular fiction to a skilled hack. His career was on one path until the release of the movie “The Silence of the Lambs,” which won all five top Oscars—actor (Anthony Hopkins as Lecter), actress—Jodie Foster, director, screenplay and movie.

Suddenly, the most important aspect of Thomas Harris’ career as a writer came to be as the creator of Hannibal the Cannibal. Lecter had already been a supporting character in Harris’ novel “Red Dragon,” then had a more prominent place in “Silence of the Lambs.” Hopkins’ indelible performance turned this very limited, if colorful, character into a superstar. Harris’ next novel was blatantly titled “Hannibal,” and in it he changed his utterly soulless monster into a sardonic killer whose victims are all bad guys. Hannibal may still be a cannibal, but now he was something like a hero.

Yes, Harris created the character and Lecter is his to do with as he sees fit, but he saw fit to distort Hannibal into something far less interesting than he had been before. This did give Anthony Hopkins a recurring role to play; he was Lecter in “Hannibal,” and again in “Red Dragon,” already filmed once under the title “Manhunter,” with Brian Cox as Lecter. Harris simply couldn’t kill off such a money machine; the distortion of Hannibal into a blacker-than-black hero was complete in the novel “Hannibal Rising,” and will be pounded even more into public consciousness with the movie version—for the first time the movie was scripted by Harris himself.

Director Steven Webber also helmed “The Girl with the Pearl Earring,” a serious, thoughtful but not entirely successful drama of a couple of years ago. This seemed to mean that he might actually do well with “Hannibal Rising”—and in filmmaking terms, he does. It’s a well-directed movie, with excellent, dark-toned cinematography by Ben Davis, realistic production design by Allan Starski, and a particularly good score by both Ilan Eshkeri and Shigeru Umebayashi. Surprisingly, the great Gong Li turns up as Hannibal’s Japanese aunt—and love interest. After this and “Miami Vice,” Li’s American agent should be taken out behind the barn and horsewhipped.
“Hannibal Rising” is a cold, unpleasant movie without a trace of lightness; it doesn’t generate a single (deliberate) laugh. We watch story that is tragic to begin with, then evolves into a tale of bitter revenge. It’s like a “Nightmare on Elm Street” with no special effects, no laughs, and Freddy as the hero. At 121 minutes, the movie is also simply too long for this kind of material—but everyone has approached this as if this is something major, a deep, profound meditation on the darkness within the human soul.

It isn’t. It’s a pompous, self-important horror movie about an intelligent lunatic. In “Manhunter” and “Silence of the Lambs,” the little we learn about Lecter’s past is that he was a cold-blooded murderer who occasionally ate his victims. There was no feeling that in any sense his victims deserved their fate—but Harris changed that in “Hannibal” and now in “Hannibal Rising.”

Here, Hannibal is a killer, true enough—but his targets are ex-Nazis, the best all-purpose, no-sympathy-possible villains of the last 65 years. The dedicated police lieutenant (Dominic West) pursuing Lecter had also tracked down war criminals, so while he does regard Lecter as a “monster,” on one level he sympathizes with Hannibal’s goals.

The movie opens in Lecter Castle—see? Hannibal IS an aristocrat—in Lithuania, as the beautiful and loving Lecter family (they’re kind to their servants) have to flee ahead of the advancing Russian army. Hannibal (Aaron Thomas), about 11, looks after his beloved younger sister Mischa (angelic Helena Lia Tachovska). But no sooner have they arrived at their lodge in the woods that a Russian tank shows up; it’s attacked by a German fighter/bomber, and the Lecter parents are killed in the loud and numerous explosions.

Soon soldiers arrive. Webber muffs this element—the audience isn’t clear on whether these are Russians or Germans; after all, they all talk (accented) English. Grutas (Rhys Ifans) is the bloodthirsty leader, and has the children bound in chains. When winter settles in and they run out of food, the soldiers begin eying the kids hungrily….

Eight years later, Hannibal (Gaspard Ulliel) is in a Soviet orphanage; he’s now mute (except when he screams Mischa’s name in nightmares), and subject to attacks from bullies, even though he immediately retaliates. “You do not honor the human pecking order,” the head of the orphanage laments to Hannibal. The orphanage is housed, conveniently enough, in Lecter castle, so Hannibal secretly opens a drawer and finds letters he needs to trace other members of his family. Interesting that in all those eight years, nobody ever bothered to open the drawer before.

He makes his way to France and to the chateau of his uncle; he learns from his uncle’s Japanese wife, Lady Murasaki Shikibu (Gong Li), that the uncle died a year before, but he’s welcome to stay. The chateau chef gives him a couple of cooking lessons (cheeks are the best part of the fish, an idea I never encountered before, and I grew up in an area where everyone, but everyone, fished), but mostly he’s drawn to his aunt. When she’s insulted by an extravagantly crude butcher (Charles Maquignon), Hannibal is quietly incensed. He later corners the much larger man and carves him up with a convenient samurai sword.

At one point, he also dons the leather mask of a samurai. I have the uncomfortable feeling that the only reason Hannibal even has something so unlikely as a Japanese-born aunt was to include her large collection of Japanese artifacts, including that samurai mask. Which is there solely for Hannibal to wear momentarily, to create an image to match the familiar look of Anthony Hopkins in “Silence of the Lambs,” when he’s forced to wear a restraining leather mask. This plays so bluntly, so obviously, to sheer commercial considerations that it’s dispiriting. How low can you sink, Mr. Harris?

Hannibal’s dreams of his sister and their captivity at the hands of the Germans slowly rouse enough memories for him to recall that the soldiers, out of food, actually killed and ate little Mischa. (Why didn’t they eat the meatier Hannibal?) The rest of the movie covers his hunt for each of the killers and his inventive, extravagant—and highly improbable—murders of them, one by one, while Lady Muraski wrings her hands and the insperctor frowns in frustration.

And this all takes over two hours to plod through. The movie is almost entirely devoid of sympathetic characters; we’re supposed to kind of sort of in a way sympathize with Hannibal because of the hell he’s had to go through, but his murders are so vividly sadistic that it’s hard to retain even a shred of sympathy for him.

Near the end of the film, there’s a revelation that’s supposed to be utterly shocking, to be the keystone in the arch of Hannibal’s life. But by this point, we’ve been subjected to so much uncomfortable imagery—though the film isn’t extravagantly gory—that this disclosure simply doesn’t have the effect intended. Also, so little of the film remains after the revelation that we cannot really see its effect on Hannibal. But wasn’t that the point of the movie, to explain how Hannibal got the way he was by the time of “Manhunter”?

“Hannibal Rising” doesn’t really explain anything, partly because the two Hannibals audiences are familiar with were already so different it was hard to consider them as one person. The “Manhunter”/”Silence of the Lambs” Hannibal was brilliant, very coldly calculating, and targeted anyone who got in his way, not merely bad people. The Lecter in “Hannibal” is some sort of sardonic avenger, targeting only bad people, and he doesn’t seem as brilliantly inventive. So “Hannibal Rising” is presented with the impossible task of explaining where this contradictory character came from.

Initially, Gaspard Ulliel is quite good as the young but adult Hannibal; he was the young lover in “A Very Long Engagement,” and has a handsome face that’s both sensual (around the full lips) and haughty. But the movie requires him to, after the midway point, express little more than sardonic archness; he tucks his chin into his chest and gazes out from lowered eyebrows. And that’s about it.

Gong Li has almost literally nothing to do, although she does get to do a brief training sword duel with Hannibal, whacking away at him with a wicker blade. After this, though, she just looks troubled and beautiful.

The supporting cast is very good; Rhys Ifans is so radically different from his role in “Notting Hill” (Hugh Grant’s dissolute roommate) that he’s nearly unrecognizable, but here he fully realizes the cold, hard nature of Hannibal’s principal opponent. Kevin McKidd, Lucius Vorenus of “Rome,” is good in a smallish role as one of the soldiers turned restaurateur.

Out there in movie audience land, there are probably enough Hannibal Lecter aficionados to make “Hannibal Rising” modestly successful. Internationally-produced movies such as this—five countries—usually do reasonably well. And it’s produced by long-time veteran Dino de Laurentiis, who’s rarely made a major misstep. But this is a long, long way from “The Silence of the Lambs.”

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