Hannibal Rising Review

Poster Art Country : USA
Year: 2007
Genre: Psychological /Horror
Format: Cinema
Running Time: 117 minutes
Distributor: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

A grisly war crime in Lithuania during the second World War sparks in one young lad a taste for murderous vengeance, as the bloody tale of Hannibal Lecter unfolds from its ghastly origin and spans across Europe as the maturing doctoral candidate cultivates his taste for bloody revenge....

Directed by Peter Webber. Written by Thomas Harris, based upon his novel. Starring Gaspard Ulliel, Gong Li, Rhys Ifans, Dominic West, Richard Brake, Charles Maquignon, Ivan Marevich, Helena Lia Tachovska and Aaran Thomas.

The opening shot of Hannibal Rising is of a spider in a web which spans most of the 2.35:1 widescreen. Perhaps it's meant as no more than whimsy, or maybe there's a touch of symbolism going on here. But the camera breathes in deeply the Lithuanian forest as the title card looms onscreen for several beats longer than most do. Then, as a pier juts onto a lake overlooking a rural castle, children's voices are heard. A boy named Hannibal Lecter and his younger sister Mischa are enjoying the last idyllic moments of their childhood before it erupts into unspeakable evil.

It is inevitably difficult to reconcile the notion of this child one day growing into the brilliant and diabolical cannibal featured in Red Dragon, Silence Of The Lambs and Hannibal. Anthony Hopkins' Oscar-winning interpretation of the character made Lecter a household name in households which normally shunned such macabre genre fare. But in this opening sequence, we are asked to suspend foregone conclusions that Lecter was born a monster and consider that perhaps he was made one. Moments after the children are heard giggling, doodling and drawing in the sand, explosions are heard as the conflict of World War II reaches their doorsteps. With their parents killed, the Lecter castle ransacked and renegade SS soldiers now holding the children as prisoners in a nearby lodge, food becomes more and more scarce, until Grutas (Rhys Ifans), the leader of the motley outfit, issues an unspeakably evil edict.

Young Hannibal shields Mischa from the military onslaught.

The story segues several years into the future. The mute and teenaged Hannibal (Gaspard Ulliel) is now living as an orphan in the Lecter castle which has been converted into a Russian orphanage. Escaping the pedantic ward, he journeys to France to rendezvous with Lady Murasaki (Gong Li), his aunt by marriage, who takes him in and engenders a healing process within the boy. Under her tutelage, he regains his voice and later shows talent in the study of medicine, becoming the youngest intern in a Parisian medical school.

But Hannibal's demons still haunt his dreams, and after his repressed violent tendencies emerge with the murder of a local meat vendor who had insulted Lady Murasaki in the market, the lad attracts the attention of Inspector Popil (Dominic West), himself a prosecutor of war criminals and who, with a nodding familiarity with Hannibal's background, shares a certain empathy. And once Hannibal opts to use Sodium Pentothal to help unlock his suppressed memories, he embarks on a personal vendetta to track down Grutas and his accomplices who killed and ate Mischa.

Lecter is about to experience the sweet taste of revenge.

Being a prequel to a highly successful cycle of books (and film adaptations), Hannibal Rising's first challenge is to justify its very existence. There is the adage that once you have "explained" a villain, he's no longer as frightening. There is even a telling line in the Silence Of The Lambs novel (not in the film, however) wherein Lecter proclaims, "Nothing happened to me, Agent Starling. I happened." So wouldn't rationalizing Lecter's motivations into being resultant of childhood trauma be tantamount to demystifying a deliciously enigmatic character? I hazard to posit, no. A firm and devout believer in the Church of Backstory, I propose that such exposition completes, not compromises, the character.

Author Thomas Harris makes his first foray into screenwriting here, adapting his recently-released novel with few deviations. Reportedly, his contract with Bantam was for two books, the first being Hannibal Rising, although whether the next book will be another Lecter tale or something unrelated has yet to be disclosed. But where Red Dragon and Silence were steeped in FBI and forensic procedure, beginning with 1999's Hannibal, Harris began to color his writing with detailed location and cultural description, focusing on Florence and Sardinia in that novel. With the prequel, we are treated to lush Lithuanian landscapes and post-war France, as well as some Samurai lore from the Murasaki character. Director Peter Webber also does a particularly marvelous job of telegraphing the WWII air raid sequences in the opening scenes, a bit of an anomaly for a Lecter picture.

Inspector Popil questions Hannibal Lecter and Lady Murasaki.

With Anthony Hopkins' involvement not a possibility due to the character's age in this film's timeline, the casting challenge was to find an actor who could successfully pull off a young Hannibal Lecter. With Gaspard Ulliel, best known for his role in A Very Long Engagement, the filmmakers succeed in spades. Ulliel is tasked with first essaying the traumatized and awkward 14-year-old mute and then transforming him into first the charming and intelligent medical student and finally, by the third act, a raging inferno of unrequited vengeance. Even managing to throw in some Hopkins-esque flourishes, Ulliel makes the character his own, particularly in one grim sequence as a victim he is drowning in a vat of embalming fluid sees Lecter wave "bye-bye" to him through the glass portal in his final moments alive. As Lady Murasaki, Gong Li is a bit underused, and that's probably because as a story device, she worked much better in the printed form, where you're able to get inside a character's mind in ways that film doesn't allow. Dominic West turns in a competent performance as the dedicated (if burdened) Inspector Popil, and Charles Maquignon has an unexpectedly campy turn as the repulsive Paul "The Butcher" Mumond, whose dirty mouth soon earns him the honor of Lecter's inaugural murder.

Three other performances truly inform the film, however. The first two are Aaran Thomas and Helena Lia Tachovska as the children Hannibal and Mischa. As the nurturing older brother, Thomas is sympathetic and believable, while Tachovska is precious to behold as the delightful and ultimately doomed younger sister. Their appearances are brief but very memorable. Then there is Rhys Ifans as Vladis Grutas. He is as amoral as Lecter in his later years, but with none of the charm or intellect. He has sophistication here, but it is of an earthy and sleazy sort. War criminal/profiteer-turned-whoremaster, Grutas only laughs at the avenging Lecter when the two eventually confront one another in the third act, before imparting a final piece of Lecter's suppressed recollection which is instrumental in destroying what has thus far remained of his soul. What a long way the talented Ifans has come since his American breakthrough role as Hugh Grant's goofball roommate in Notting Hill seven years ago.

Monster meets monster as Lecter confronts Grutas.

Walking out of the cinema, I inwardly and spontaneously summed up Hannibal Rising in two words: gorgeous and difficult. It is gorgeous in its scope and cinematography, as well as the telegraphing of its setpieces. It is also difficult at least on an emotional level, first with the (thankfully off-camera) demise of the innocent Mischa and later with the once-noble Hannibal allowing his own demons to eventually claim him. As Silence Of The Lambs had its infamous "fava beans and a nice Chianti" line and Hannibal even topped that with its "I'm giving serious thought to eating your wife" quip, Hannibal Rising also manages to give its title character a devilishly funny last line: "I've come to collect a head." In this context, that's not a spoiler, but if you see the film, you'll get it. It's all part of the tapestry that is the Hannibal Lecter saga....kind of like that spider web in the opening shot of the film. But who is the spider in the center, Lecter or his creator, author Thomas Harris? Since I'm already pining for that second book of his contract to be another Lecter tale, my money is on Harris.


Review by Petch Lucas, for Pitofhorror.com

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