Hannibal Rising
By: Rod Williams on February 13, 2007  |  Comments ()  |  Bookmark and Share
Director: Peter Webber
Starring: Gaspard Ulliel, Gong Li, Helena Lia Tachovska, Rhys Ifans, Dominic West
Screenplay: Thomas Harris
Country: USA
Australian Release Date: February 8 , 2007
Distributor: Roadshow Films
Running Time: 121 minutes
Throughout Hannibal (1999), Thomas Harris' superb follow up to Silence of the Lambs (1988), the fugitive Dr. Lecter is haunted by the memory of his baby sister Mischa, who was slaughtered and eaten by starving looters on the Eastern Front of World War II. By the conclusion of that book, aided perhaps by the bizarre consummation of his 'love' for FBI agent Clarice Starling, Hannibal stops dreaming of his beloved sister. In a way, Starling returns the favour Lecter did for her in the previous tale, which was to stop the lambs from screaming and grant her peace of mind. Of course, an obvious similarity exists between Starling's lambs and Lecter's Mischa: both were innocents taken away and slain for human sustenance. Like Hannibal, whose parents were killed at the hunting lodge during the war, Starling also lost her father at an early age.

Hannibal Rising delves further into the events in Lithuania leading up to Hannibal's childhood trauma at the hunting lodge – ostensibly causing his mind to snap – as well as covering what happens to him afterwards. With the SS-Waffen sweeping in from the west toward Russia in Operation Barbarossa, Hannibal's father Count Lecter (Richard Leaf, The Fifth Element, Braveheart) and mother (Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Mission: Impossible) decide to leave Lecter Castle and hide in their secluded hunting lodge. Aged eight and three, Hannibal (Aaron Thomas) and sister Mischa (Helena Lia Tachovska) ride along with their parents through the forest as various functionaries stay behind to lock down the family residence. Suddenly, a German regiment appears, accompanied by local Nazi sympathizers who terrorize the cook and housekeeper, then loot the premises. Several years later the Lecters, still holding out at the hunting lodge, suffer an unfortunate encounter with a Russian tank and a German dive bomber. Soon afterwards, the vagabonds who looted the Lecter homestead stumble upon the hunting lodge but only find Hannibal and Mischa giving each other comfort in the cold. Led by Vladis Grutas (Rhys Ifans, Notting Hill, The Shipping News) and posing as Red Cross helpers, the amoral band of deserters do what they can to stay alive without food in the freezing conditions.

Naturally, Hannibal Lecter survives, but in what state? Being an outsider, his life after the war as a mute orphan is spent in misery, although his response to bullies often results in worse injuries for the aggressors than to himself. Still mute, the teenaged Hannibal (Gaspard Ulliel) eventually escapes the orphanage and treks to France to shack up with his widowed aunt, Lady Murasaki Shikibu (Li Gong, Miami Vice, Memoirs of a Geisha, 2046). Despite the peaceful surroundings and sensual kindness of Lady Murasaki, who willingly or not seems to encourage Oedipal feelings in the already troubled adolescent, Hannibal is tormented by missing fragments of Mischa's fate in the lodge. At the age of 18, Hannibal signs up for medical school in Paris and excels at drawing dissected corpses, but in his quest to learn the truth about his past, Hannibal discovers in gruesome ways that the looters are now earning a prosperous living as smugglers in Europe and Canada. Hannibal's latent homicidal urges, which once exploded during an altercation with a market stall butcher (Charles Maquignon), soon turn to the business of cold and calculated revenge.

Despite a few hitches, the book is excellent – I devoured it in two days. Burp. Now, Thomas Harris apparently developed the screenplay in parallel with the novel, which could explain the clichéd plot devices that surface at the tail end of the story. At 323 pages in hardcover, the novel contains more detail, characters and subplots and than the film, such as the whole thread about recovering the family art collection, stolen by Grutas and his thugs from the abandoned Lecter estate. The book also serves up more ancillary violence and bloodshed. In one scene, a Russian machine gunner gets an arm shot off and continues to fire the weapon with his remaining hand. In the film, he merely does the ballistic tango and slumps forward. However, both the film and the novel share the same grim tone and muted aesthetics of 'earlier' Hannibal the Cannibal misadventures.

The main problem with the movie, which was directed by Peter Webber (Girl with a Pearl Earring), is the bogey that everyone involved with the project probably dreaded most: the character of Hannibal, who is central to the narrative more so here than ever before, is just not strong enough to carry the picture. French actor Gaspard Ulliel (Brotherhood of the Wolf, A Very Long Engagement) makes a go of it. Even though he looks and behaves the part – more so as Hannibal's madness reveals itself – unfortunate comparisons with Sir Anthony Hopkins in the role happen spontaneously and can't be avoided. Those are big shoes for any actor to fill: Hopkins won an Academy Award for his legendary portrayal in Jonathan Demme's adaptation. More than that, Hannibal Lecter M.D. became part of popular culture thanks to Silence of the Lambs.

The narrative structure of Hannibal Rising does not help its cause, either. In the book, even aged eight, Hannibal is shown to be a precocious, cultured, and highly intelligent boy who relishes private tuition and soaks up the natural wonders of the world around him (sounds like your typical Digital Retribution reader). His affection for and protectiveness of his sister is also evident. When Hannibal's life and sanity implodes, the story retains the poignant bitterness of a tragedy, regardless of how predictable the lazy plotting is. In contrast, the movie never has a chance to lay this vital foundation convincingly. In the rush to establish the setting, Hannibal is almost depicted as a normal, though quirky, child who gets along with his sister and then runs foul of circumstances out of his control. After the war, he becomes a mute, making the audience think of him as mentally retarded. This jars with the young adult version of Hannibal, who is supposed to be smart and educated, projecting a well-mannered urbane presence. The book, because of the way it can relay psychological traits, makes this transition more successfully. It would have been interesting if Thomas Harris told the origins of Hannibal's psychosis from two different – though complementary – perspectives, one for the novel and one for the film. Then again, with the likes of Dino DeLaurentiis looking over your shoulder, I doubt any writer could have pulled that stunt off. After all, uncle Dino doesn't quite fit anyone's idea of a literary muse.

Promoted as a basic thriller with macabre twists, Hannibal Rising does work purely on those terms. That includes an ending which was borrowed from a dozen Hollywood money spinners. Sadly, the movie only achieves the maniacal frission the audience expected during the final moments of the climax. Too little, too late. Or as horror comic illustrator friends of mine are fond of saying, "that's where the movie should have started". The killings are vicious without going outside mainstream boundaries. In the best sequence, one chap who incurs Hannibal's wrath sees a drawing of his own severed head sitting on a plate moments before it gets sliced off. How ghoulish! The tasty special make-up and visual effects were handled by Waldo Mason (Alien vs Predator, Doom, Event Horizon) and Framestore CFC (Superman Returns, Underworld, Blade II) respectively. That said, don't expect to see little Mischa gutted and skewered and spinning on a rotisserie with an apple in her mouth. Actually, this brings up another failing of the movie. The carnage at the lodge isn't as horrifying as depicted in the novel: mother on fire, brains of his tutor on the ground, and so on. Therefore it's harder to accept young Hannibal's jump from post traumatic stress to murderous insanity. An interesting sidenote concerns the casting of Li Gong as the widow who lost relatives at Hiroshima. Genre students will remember her as the foetus-munching beauty therapist in Dumplings.

With Ridley Scott's adaptation of Hannibal at best a moderate success, and Red Dragon (2002) a surprisingly good rehash thanks to Hopkins and screenwriter Ted Tally, members of the anthropophagic socialite's original fan club – in other words, those who were mesmerised by the paperback edition of Red Dragon (1981) two decades ago – would agree that the good doctor continues to live and breathe most vividly within the pages of Thomas Harris' memory palaces. If you count yourself among this group, read the novel first, then track down the movie for curiosity's sake only, since it doesn't offer much to chew on besides mechanical storytelling.
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