The problem with the Hannibal Lecter films is they have a hard act to follow. Jonathan Demme’s “Silence of the Lambs” made Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling two of the most memorable characters in film history. Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster rightfully earned Academy Awards for their portrayals of these characters. Some of you may not be aware that “Silence of the Lambs” was actually the second of Thomas Harris’ books to be adapted for the big screen. Years earlier, Michael Mann adapted “Red Dragon” and created the film “Manhunter” starring William Petersen (TV’s “CSI”) and Brian Cox as Hannibal Lecter. The film didn’t do very well and wasn’t revisited until the Demme film. “Silence” is a hard act to follow. It features two actors and a director working at the height of their creative powers and working together to create one of the most suspenseful films ever made. The film was so successful; Hopkins went on to play the character two more times, in “Hannibal”, with Julianne Moore playing Clarice Starling and in “Red Dragon” with Edward Norton and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Thomas Harris recently published “Hannibal Rising”, a prequel telling the story of Hannibal Lecter’s childhood and early 20s in post-war Europe. As with “Hannibal”, a screenplay was in the works soon after the book was published and we now have “Hannibal Rising” on the big screen a scant few months after the publication of the book.
Another reason “Lambs” worked so well was because Hopkin’s Lecter truly scared us. The role is basically a small supporting role and we see Lecter in small doses, to provide a jolt of creepiness and suspense. The film is basically about Foster’s Starling investigating a serial killer, her first assignment out of the FBI Training Academy. Because the story concentrates on Starling, we live the film through her; feel the suspense and terror she feels throughout. But Hopkins portrayal would prove too memorable and he would become the center of the series. And it worked. Not as well, but it worked. Hopkins is so memorable as this character we almost want him to return to the big screen, so we can revisit an old friend. A cannibalistic, murdering old friend.
There seems to be a current trend in Hollywood. Sequels are necessary, but the studios must do everything they can to hide the fact it is a sequel which is why many recent entries have had their names changed. So instead of “Pirates of the Carribean II”, we have “Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man’s Chest”. It makes all the difference doesn’t it? Another current trend seems to be ‘if you can’t take the character to the next logical step in their lives, go backwards and make a prequel’. That might freshen things up and you can cast a younger, cheaper, better looking actor in the lead role. This helped to make “Casino Royale” possible and to show Daniel Craig as the ‘new’ James Bond, when he first became a secret service agent.
So “Hannibal Rising” fits in with these two current trends. Instead of “Hannibal 3” or “4” or “5”, depending on how you look at it, we have “Hannibal Rising”. Because the story centers on Hannibal’s life as a young man, we can’t have Hopkins playing the role and the producers likely saved a bundle.
1944. Hannibal, his younger sister, Mischa, and his parents flee their castle in Lithuania just as the Russians and Germans begin to battle in the area. Arriving at their country home, the Lecters believe they are safe, yet are soon proven wrong. Hannibal and his sister are huddled in the attic when a group of Lithuanian bandits, who were trying to join the SS, have now gone rogue, combing the countryside for the valuables of the dead. They come across the children hiding in their country home and soon decide to camp out. The food soon runs out and before you know it, the story shifts to eight years later. Hannibal, a mute dealing with the lingering nightmares of the war and the death of his sister, now lives in an orphanage which has been set up in the old Lecter castle. Before long, Lecter escapes and travels across the snowy landscape arriving in France to visit his Uncle and Japanese Aunt, Lady Murasaki (Gong Li). Arriving at the chateau, Lecter learns his Uncle died the previous year, but his aunt takes him in. Circumstances force her to sell the chateau and they move to Paris where Hannibal enrolls in medical school. It is a working scholarship, so he spends many hours preparing cadavers for the medical students. Then he learns the Lithuanian bandits are still alive and most of them are living in France. He must exact his revenge.
If “Silence of the Lambs” and “Manhunter” had never been made, or this film had been made first, followed by the others, it would be received much more favorably. The production values are top notch and we feel like we are in Europe during and shortly after the war, but the story has a ‘been there, done that’ feel to it and some of the characters are more laughable than menacing.
Gaspard Ullilel (Audrey Tatou’s boyfriend in “A Very Long Engagement”) plays Hannibal and he has the interesting, severe looks to pull the character off. The role is interesting because he plays so much of it silently. I see what they are trying to do, to make the character seem menacing through his silence, but it doesn’t exactly work. When he does speak, we don’t really get a sense of his character, the things he is feeling. Yes, he wants revenge, and we certainly understand why after witnessing what he does during World War II, but we never get a sense of why he feels he can exact revenge. Does he go to medical school as a means to an end?
The character and actor are much more interesting when exploring the relationship between Hannibal and his Aunt, Lady Murasaki (Gong Li). There is a quietly growing sexual attraction there and the two actors pull this off nicely, adding a lot of depth to these characters.
Gong Li plays Lady Murasaki, the aunt who takes Hannibal in and teaches him some of her philosophies, all of which are pulled from Samurai teachings, legend and lore. She has a collection of swords and armor from her ancestors and Hannibal eyes a mask with interest. As they get to know each other and Murasaki learns more of her nephew’s thoughts, she becomes more protective of him, helping him in many ways.
It seems a bit far fetched to have a Japanese woman living in a French Chateau immediately following the end of World War II. The story quickly establishes that she and Hannibal’s Uncle were married before the War, which is how a photo of the happy couple ended up in Hannibal’s Mother’s possessions, yet during the course of the story, someone asks Murasaki about losing her family in the Hiroshima bombing. Did she watch this? If so, she probably wasn’t firmly ensconced in the French Chateau before the War. The likely prejudice towards Japanese and Germans during this period is addressed, leading Hannibal to his first victim.
The Lithuanian marauders (led by Rhys Ifans (“Notting Hill”) and Kevin McKidd (HBO’s “Rome”)) are played with a comic villain intensity completely ruining any suspense or mood set up during the rest of the film. I watched a DVD of cartoons created by the Walt Disney Studios over the weekend during World War II. In these cartoons, the villains are played by the Big Bad Wolf and over the top stereotypes of these cultures. In these cartoons, the filmmakers only had a few minutes to get these characters across and tried very hard to quickly establish how villainous they are. In “Hannibal Rising”, the same treatment seems to be used for these marauders who come complete with dirty, misshaped teeth and scowls. But these characterizations are completely at odds with the amount of time and attention to detail used to establish Lecter and Murasaki.
Dominic West (“The Forgotten”, HBO’s “The Wire”) plays Inspector Popil, the French policeman who is also scarred by memories of the war. He begins to investigate Lecter after the mysterious death of a local butcher. Throughout the film, he is always one step behind the villainous young man and can’t quite seem to close the gap. Popil could have been left out of the film and the project would remain virtually the same. He seems to be so ineffective, always trailing behind the young serial killer that he never really poses a threat to Hannibal Lecter.
“Hannibal Rising” is directed by Peter Webber who you may know from a previous film “The Girl with a Pearl Earring”. I certainly see the connection; the attention to detail in creating the landscapes and places for these characters is second to none. But he has less success creating any form of suspense. I never, ever felt Hannibal Lecter was in any danger and wasn’t able to become engrossed in his journey.