A Hill of Fava Beans
Hannibal Rising / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | February 9, 2007 | Comments ()
For a series that once reached the auspicious heights of The Silence of the Lambs, the ongoing film saga of Dr. Hannibal Lecter has hit a pathetic new low with Hannibal Rising, a clumsy, dull, poorly plotted, ill-conceived waste of film that limps along bloodlessly for two hours before finally shuffling off into the dark. Director Peter Webber, working from Thomas Harris’ screenplay (based on his own novel), commits the genre’s worst sin by offering a thriller completely devoid of thrills. Part of this is due to the very nature of prequels: Hannibal Rising traces the young Lecter’s life as he develops a taste for killing, but it’s not as if the viewer is left wondering whether he’ll get away with it or be captured or killed. We know for a fact that he’ll live until at least his 60s and eat quite a few faces along the way. However, Webber refuses to inject any of the scenes with the requisite tension to keep them from bogging down, and the film is ultimately undone because its hero is a flesh-eating psychopath, and it’s impossible to care what happens to him.
Young Hannibal Lecter lives with his parents and kid sister in a castle in Lithuania, which is overrun in 1944 by roving troops of Nazis and Russians. His family takes refuge in their nearby lodge, but they’re soon discovered by a pack of local thugs who’ve been aiding the Germans. Webber actually demonstrates some skill in these early sequences, and the story’s premise holds promise: How would the boy and his sister survive after a bomb kills their parents? What would the thugs do to them? But after only a few minutes, the film sinks into pathetic melodrama: The child Hannibal crying to heaven as he cradles his mother’s corpse after the bombing; the head thug eating a freshly killed bird and smearing the blood on his jaw as he greedily eyes the children; the flash cuts and music stings that are meant to invoke an air of terror but instead came across as hollow mockeries of actual mood. The boy eventually escapes, at which point the film leaps forward eight years to catch up with the teenage Hannibal (Gaspard Ulliel), now living in his parents’ old home, which has been turned into a state-run orphanage. Haunted by dreams of his sister, Hannibal doesn’t speak to anyone, though he is prone to stabbing his enemies with forks or laying bear traps for them. You know, kid stuff. The headmaster reprimands Hannibal with this curious statement: “You do not honor the human pecking order. You’re always hurting the bullies.” Hannibal’s sin, apparently, is demanding justice, but he’s rebuked for it, which would make an interesting theory as to why he starts taking matters into his own hands and dispensing cannibalistic retribution to his trespassers, only Webber has zero intention of getting anywhere near the psychology of Lecter’s character. He fights because he was traumatized as a youngster by the thugs. That’s it.
It’s at the orphanage that Hannibal discovers some of his mother’s old correspondence, which leads him to his uncle’s address in France. After hitchhiking across the continent to get there, Hannibal learns that his uncle is dead, and his aunt, Lady Murasaki (Gong Li), now lives alone. She teaches Hannibal to fight with a samurai sword — which you know is going to wind up being a bad, bad idea — and flirts with him shamelessly, which is just creepy. From here, Webber doesn’t pretend to connect the scenes with any semblance of suspense; he merely strings together sequences with awful dialogue (“Memory is like a knife. It can cut you.”) until Hannibal, by now a med student, eventually kills someone else. Hannibal lashes out at a local man who wrongs him, then eventually decides that the only way to rid himself of his bad dreams is to hunt down and slaughter the aging thugs that destroyed his youth, most of whom conveniently live in France now.
Hannibal’s plodding pursuit of the thugs takes up the bulk of the script, but Harris, in his first screenplay outing, keeps the film rooted firmly in the kind of episodic ramblings that would be better suited to a novel. The story skirts larger issues like the war crimes the men have committed, as well as the compromises people make in pursuit of a larger good. Inspector Pope (Dominic West) knows Hannibal is guilty of certain crimes, but is willing to ignore them if Hannibal can assist in the capture of Vladis Grutas (Rhys Ifans), who runs girls and engages in other unspecified criminal activities. But none of these issues has a chance to take hold as long as Harris and Webber are content to do nothing more than set up victims and knock them down in increasingly violent means. Which is another problem entirely: In the era of torture-porn, the brutalities of Hannibal Lecter seem downright quaint, or at least understandable. It was the erudition and class Anthony Hopkins brought to the role that lent the character his iconic status and turned him from a psycho into a demigod. Even Brian Cox, in Michael Mann’s 1986 Manhunter, lent the character some grace. But Ulliel is a stilted shell of Hannibal’s former incarnations, moving blindly from murder to murder with none of the fierceness or complexity that made the character so watchable in the past.
But only so much of the blame can be laid at Ulliel’s awkward feet. By focusing solely on Hannibal, Harris and Webber drain the story of the intricacies that made the original films so compelling. It was Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling, and her terrifying conversations with the urbane but mercurial Hannibal, that made The Silence of the Lambs so mesmerizing. He was a caged animal, and she was dangling meat in front of the bars to provoke a response. But in Hannibal Rising, there is no worthy adversary for Hannibal to deal with, just a string of horrible people who, though they probably didn’t deserve to die, never rise above the level of interchangeable victims. Left to his own devices, Hannibal is one boring guy.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.