2007Director: Peter Webber
Cast: Gong Li, Gaspard Ulliel, Dominic West
here are some characters in the movies so inescapably tied to a single performer that it’s impossible to reincarnate them with any other actor. Let’s be clear about one thing: Hannibal Lecter, the nefariously clever cannibal whose snarl of implacable evil has become a cultural touchstone, is not one of them. Anthony Hopkins is certainly the face of the franchise, but before The Silence of the Lambs was even published, Brian Cox was doing a masterful deadpan as Lecter in Michael Mann’s 1986 freak-out, Manhunter.
And so in Hannibal Rising, an afterthought of a prequel based on the recent book by Thomas Harris (who also provides the screenplay), don’t mistake Sir Anthony’s absence as the movie’s downfall. No, that would be that the film exists. Overlooking the four movies we already have on Lecter’s adult life, the premise, I suppose, is that we needed a fifth to go back to his childhood and get the full story. Regardless of the fact that no one wants to understand Hannibal Lecter—where’s the fun in that?—the explanation the film coughs up for his wicked deeds is so silly it should have shut down the movie.
Prepare yourself. The root of this insatiable, irresistible evil? Chiefly, some dudes ate his sister. And when he grows up, the early scenes of Hannibal Rising assure us, our serpentine antihero is gonna eat them back. There’s more to the story than that—Lecter backpacks through Europe, and Gong Li eventually shows up as his so-hot-she’s-creepy aunt and mentor—but the details are nowhere near as good as the punch line.
The film unsurprisingly has nothing to do with its predecessors, and in fact nothing to do with Hannibal Lecter. The Hannibal of Hannibal Rising is a weird, wide-eyed teenager who’s just out for a little revenge, which wouldn’t really be a problem if the movie didn’t go to such lengths to remind us it’s part of a bigger picture. As a standalone thriller, it doesn’t work, but Hannibal Rising is more bizarre than anything—a collection of odd, campy subplots that don’t amount to much, but are nevertheless amusing on their own terms.
But Hannibal Rising is never content to be just that. In an early scene, when a chef explains to Hannibal that the cheeks of a fish are the most savory part—they are “of most creatures,” the man explains—we get the joke, but the whole thing feels so wrong-headed. In that sense the film is an inherent failure: it’s conceived to put the spotlight on a villain beloved for his rogue, cocksure detachment, not because he’s a compelling character in his own right. Hannibal’s flamboyant evil is not a narrative arc, it’s a morbid amusement, and Hannibal Rising has no concept of that appeal.
Director Peter Webber (Girl With a Pearl Earring) does his best to distract from this conundrum by providing the film with an appropriately Gothic outfit and a minor dream cast who seem happily unaware of which movie they’re in. Gaspard Ulliel (A Very Long Engagement) is a no-go as Hannibal, but Li and Dominic West (who shows up halfway through as an investigator of war crimes) are an unexpected gift to the film’s dreary midsection. The scenes they share are almost enough to make the movie.
Yet remember that they are so welcome for taking the attention off of Hannibal, not putting it on him, which is just not the way it’s supposed to be. Therein lies Hannibal Rising’s gravest sin: it takes the fun out of Hannibal Lecter, and as frivolous as the movie may be, that much is unforgivable.
Hannibal Rising is currently in wide release.