In the annals of author Thomas Harris' cool and calculating cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lectera character featured in 1991's "The Silence of the Lambs," 2001's "Hannibal
," and 2002's "Red Dragon
," the latter a prequel to the series as well as a remake of 1986's lesser-known cult item "Manhunter""Hannibal Rising" purports to tell of the iconic figure's early years and the life-altering events that mold him into the monster he ultimately becomes. Not counting "Manhunter," this is the first time the role has not been essayed by Anthony Hopkins. Because Hopkins is so indelibly intertwined with Lecter, one would suspect that this latest dip into the lore of the character would feel as if it were missing something vital. By and large, "Hannibal Rising" is intriguing enough to both stand on its own and carve a place into the already established and tremendously popular series.
In filling in for Anthony Hopkins, young French actor Gaspard Ulliel (2004's "A Very Long Engagement") proves to be a superb replacement. Though the actors do not really look alike, Ulliel has a captivatingly unconventional face that can convey warmth one second and a disturbing coldness the next. Without mimicking Hopkins' earlier performances, Ulliel is also very good at portraying through personality and speech a young man who could conceivably grow into the adult Hannibal that viewers already know so well. Meanwhile, subtle allusions to past film entries are sprinkled throughout to please knowledgeable fans, including a half-mask reminiscent of the one worn in "The Silence of the Lambs" and the appearance of a boar that recalls a key scene from "Hannibal
As a frightened child in WWII-torn Lithuania, circa 1944, Hannibal Lecter witnessed the deaths of his parents and the cannibalistic slaughter of his beloved little sister Mischa. Now eighteen years of age, Hannibal (Gaspard Ulliel) has not given up his vow to find out the identities of the men responsible for Mischa's murder and seek revenge on them. Escaping from the miserable boarding school that has taken up residence in his old home"Lecter Castle," as it is labeledHannibal travels to France and seeks the shelter of a distant widowed aunt, Lady Murasaki (Gong Li). The two of them become something of kindred spirits, as they are both dealing with their own personal pains of the pasther family was killed in the Hiroshima bomb years agobut Lady Murasaki is unprepared for just how far Hannibal is willing to take his revenge. And, once Hannibal commits his first gruesome slaying, there is no turning back on the bloodlust and rage unleashed in his soul.
Directed by Peter Webber (2003's "Girl with a Pearl Earring") and photographed by Ben Davis with a sleek and handsome sheen, "Hannibal Rising" is an arresting thriller fascinating for its provocative implications in regard to Hannibal's internal transformation. Instead of repeating himself, screenwriter Thomas Harris goes in a fresh direction that avoids the obvious trappings when usually describing how a serial killer is born. The only debit that comes out of this is, by humanizing Hannibal Lecter and giving him a reason to go after his initial victims, it sheds the character of some of the mystery that makes him so chilling. Also, to fulfill the goal of presenting Hannibal as a changed, cold-blooded man by the end, a stranger should have been introduced as his next meal in the final frames. With that said, the picture is a seedy, operatic and grisly revenge pic in the classic sense, drawing the viewer in a vise grip of blood and mayhem.
With a devilish gleam in his smile and an accentuated dimple in his left cheek that leaves him looking appropriately off-kilter, Gaspard Ulliel is a masterful Hannibal Lecter. He isn't scary in the same way Anthony Hopkins was, but that is because, by being front-and-center to the action, he is someone the viewer almost sides with and understands. As Lady Murasaki, who notices Hannibal spinning out of control but knows of no way to stop him, Gong Li (2006's "Miami Vice
") continues her auspicious segue into American productions. Li is perhaps one of the most gorgeous faces in movies today, but she also has the necessary depth and soulfulness to go along with it. It's of no fault of her own that Li does have to recite the film's clunkiest line of dialogue: "Memories are like knives. They can hurt you." As lead villain Vladis Grutas, the key conspirator in Mischa's death, Rhys Ifans (2004's "Vanity Fair
") is smug, smarmy, emotionally ugly, and altogether evil in the best possible meanings of the words. One cannot help but count down to Hannibal's delivery of just desserts unto this rotten-to-the-core baddie.
If nothing else, "Hannibal Rising" is a noted step up from "Hannibal
," the lurid and silly direct sequel to "The Silence of the Lambs." There is a telegraphed feel to the setup and payoff on this latest effort, with Lecter knocking off each individual of the guilty party one by one in a number of sick and violent ways, but its conventions are fashioned with style, visual panache, and even humanity. As long as they keep making money, there shall be plenty more stories to tell about this beloved antihero. Blemished but undeniably enthralling as dark entertainment, "Hannibal Rising" is one of the good ones.