"Nothing happened to me. I happened. You can't reduce me to a set of influences." -- Hannibal Lecter to Clarice Starling in the book The Silence of the Lambs
Hannibal Lecter is a big fat liar; his creator, Thomas Harris, is a big fat sellout; and Harris' newest work, Hannibal Rising, goes down as the biggest, fattest leveraging of a built-in audience's good intentions since George Lucas' Star Wars prequels. Hannibal Rising also happens to be an above-average film, gorgeous to look at if a little long in the tooth. As sellouts go, it could be a lot worse.
Hannibal Rising is, of course, the latest in the film series that began in 1986 with Michael Mann's superb Manhunter, was followed with Jonathan Demme's masterpiece, the flawless The Silence of the Lambs, in 1991, was brought to its knees with the criminally misguided Hannibal in 2001, and was mildly redeemed with the 2002 Manhunter remake, Red Dragon.
Based on the book of the same name (which I haven't read yet), with a screenplay by author Harris, Hannibal Rising opens on the grounds of Lecter Castle in war-torn Lithuania, 1944. It's a case of "The Russians are coming! The Nazis are here!" as the Lecters flee the manse to their country home to avoid getting pinched between the two armies. Soon enough, though, the elder Lecters are dead, young Hannibal and his goldilocks sister Mischa are held prisoner by local thugs, and everybody is starving in the merciless Baltic winter. In a fit of narrative haziness, something untoward happens to Mischa, and Hannibal gets loose during a military skirmish.
After a few years, Lecter flees Lithuania, crossing Iron Curtain Europe en route to France, where his uncle lives. There, Hannibal finds that his uncle is dead but is survived by the widow Lady Murasaki (Gong Li), who takes Hannibal in. He attends a fine school, learns gastronomy and etiquette from house servants and martial arts from Murasaki, and eventually gets into medical school in Paris, where he lists among his duties the preparation of cadavers for anatomy class.
But all is not well in Hannibal's world: In his head, he has a teeth-gnashing nightmare stew of his sister's demise and wartime privations all those years before, memories that are repressed while he's awake. Hannibal's memory is a meal; his intentions, teeth. Rather than run from the pain he endured, he wants to cannibalize it. In that act of self-discovery, Hannibal remembers what happened to Mischa, and, more importantly for the plot, who did it. Once it's back to Lithuania for Hannibal to track down those who done him and his wrong, a revenge pic is born.
Gaspard Ulliel stars as Lecter in Hannibal Rising, following in the celebrated footsteps of Anthony Hopkins (Lambs, Hannibal, Red Dragon) and Brian Cox (Manhunter). The character doesn't talk much in the newest entry, which is okay because Ulliel can't quite get the voice right, though you can tell he's trying to mimic Hopkins. However, Ulliel niftily performs some mouth and face tics that ape expressions Hopkins gave to Lecter; Ulliel's careful study of what is, frankly, Lecter esoterica, is winning.
With high cheekbones and a plunging jaw, Ulliel strikes a profile that's slightly off-putting. It's easy to imagine him a homicidal maniac -- just not Lecter. (Maybe the Joker?) Ulliel's cool, dark eyes helped him portray the sweet-natured innocent in A Very Long Engagement. Here his eyes betray little in the way of personality. His smiles don't touch his eyes; that Lecter only smiles when he's about to kill someone hasn't mattered in past incarnations of the character.
The film is directed by Peter Webber, who proved in his last film, Girl with a Pearl Earring, that he's good at capturing period detail and making it look lived in without losing any of its nascent beauty. Hannibal Rising again has Webber in top form. The film is at its most interesting as a travelogue and survey of postwar Europe, and it's here, when the film almost resembles an art-house drama and Lecter is incidental, where Webber is most in command. The set design and cinematography are lovely; the sadism that fills both the text and subtext isn't.
Of course, where Hannibal Rising fails the most is in transgressing the mission statement quoted above. Questions are always more interesting than answers, of course, and, in filling in the back-story of the series' most mysterious character, Hannibal Lecter is essentially defanged.
Moreover, if it's gonna dredge up the question -- and if Thomas Harris is gonna sell out his earlier works by answering it -- of how Hannibal Lecter came to be a monster, the key to the riddle is hardly compelling. The classic formative-developmental question of nature versus nurture isn't even explored: It's all nurture, all the time. Hannibal spends an idyllic youth in the Lecter Castle and its surrounding forest, a little Richie Rich palling around with Mischa. He shows no evidence of sociopathic behavior. He's eventually subjected to wartime pains and indignities and worse, but what makes him different from any other World War II survivor is never explained.
Hannibal Lecter isn't a product of spoiled genes or a negligent God. He's just another manmade creep, albeit with a predilection for cheek flesh. "He ate my sister" just doesn't cut it as great motivation for serial murder when it comes down to it. (On the flip side, perhaps Harris, who is more responsible than any other for the romanticization of the serial killer, should be commended for making his most celebrated character seem so common.)
Foreshadowing is only effective when the audience doesn't plumb its secrets until it's too late. Winking homages before the fact to boars, gypsies, masks, pencil sketches, The Goldberg Variations, and other Hannibal Lecter motifs -- which Hannibal Rising is guilty of time and time again -- burden the film with cute cleverness.
Hannibal Rising is better than the previous two entries in the Lecter series, but it has none of the elegance or chills of the high-water marks set by Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs. Watching Hannibal Rising, my pulse never got above 85, even when Lecter was eating some poor soul's tongue.