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Arts & Culture

Hannibal Rising

Hannibal was kept behind bars for his next screen appearance in

Silence of the Lambs (1991). Anthony Hopkins took over the role of Hannibal from Brian Cox, and won an Oscar for his chilling performance. Hopkins would reprise the role in

Hannibal (in which we discover his Lithuanian background), a sequel to

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Silence of the Lambs , and in

Red Dragon, which, depending on how you look at it, is either a prequel to

Silence of the Lambs or a remake of

Manhunter .

Red Dragon was intended to be a more faithful adaptation of Harris novel than the earlier Michael Mann film

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, and had the oddity of Hopkins playing the same character but as a younger man since

Red Dragon occurs chronologically before

Silence of the Lambs. And now we come to Hannibal Rising , which Harris has adapted to the screen himself. This latest book and film are meant to provide insight into how Hannibal turned into the Cannibal. The film starts in 1944 when a young Hannibal is fleeing Lithuania with his little sister and parents. But they dont get far. Russian tanks arrive at the Lecters safe house and in an ensuing battle between the tank and a German plane, Hannibals parents are killed. This leaves Hannibal and his sister Mischa to fend for themselves. And to make matters worse, some wannabe Nazis discover the house and hold the children captive.

Gong Li in Hannibal Rising

The turning point for young Lecter is when the men kill his sister (this really isn't a spoiler but I won't say anything about how she dies). The film then jumps to Hannibal (now played by French actor Gaspard Ulliel) as a young man escaping a Russian childrens home that has been set up at the old Lecter estate. Hannibal finds some old family letters that lead him to relatives in France. His uncle died in the war but he finds a Japanese woman, Lady Murasaki Shikibu (Gong Li), who welcomes him into his uncle's old home. Now Hannibal sets about seeking revenge for Mischas death. Lady Murasaki trains him in the martial arts and Hannibal gets accepted into medical school where he learns some effective dissecting techniques.

The film, directed by Peter Webber, attempts to fill in Hannibals background. It tries to explain what turned him into a monster yet it doesnt want to go anywhere truly dark. It shies away from showing Mischas death, which is necessary in terms of helping us understand how horrific the event would be for Hannibal. It's also unwilling to make Hannibal scary. They have him hunting the killers of his little sister, which essentially makes him somewhat sympathetic. After all, these child killers deserve the cruel fate they receive at Hannibals hands. In fact, Webber seems to want us to cheer Hannibal on in his quest for revenge. The film's unwilling to present us with the monster, even at the end. They want to make Hannibal somewhat attractive because they are afraid of repelling their audience. Granted this is supposed to be Hannibal rising, and he doesnt need to start at a scary place. But Harris and Webber never let us inside Hannibals darkly twisting mind. Hopkins Hannibal in Jonathon Demmes Silence of the Lambs was far more scary and fascinating, and there was not an attempt to make him sympathetic or likable.

Arriving on the heels of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer , Hannibal Rising suffers in comparison. Both films want to show the evolution of a serial killer. But Perfume really puts us inside the mind of the killer to make us see the world from his perspective. Hannibal Rising stays completely outside the character and never finds the details to make us believe his transformation. The film relies on clichs and contrivance to explain Hannibal. The film doesnt even play into the other Hannibal films with much success or credence.

Hannibal Rising

The performances are all adequate. Ulliel tries to mask his French accent and almost succeeds. But then Hannibal has had a mix of accents through the Scottish Cox, Welsh Hopkins and now French Ulliel. Ulliel is directed to maintain a cool demeanor that never cracks. That also means he never lets us inside his character's head. Gong Li, the famous Chinese actress, now seems in danger of being typecast as Japanese as she takes on her second big Hollywood film as a Japanese woman (she was also in Memoirs of a Geisha ). She adds little to the role of Lady Murasaki but then the script gives her a mere husk of a character and expects her to fill it out. Dominic West as the dogged police inspector is thoroughly bland and Rhys Ifan just practices psycho stares as the ruthless soldier who orders the killing of Hannibals sister.

Hannibal Rising (rated R for violence) is the weakest film yet in the Hannibal film series, and it has some serious competition from the other two recent entries Hannibal and Red Dragon . It doesnt build on the story or the character in any meaningful way. Webber takes an epic yet languid approach to his material, and tries to make it more weighty than it is. The result is a ponderous, uninspired portrait of a serial killer in the making with Webber missing every opportunity to build suspense and deliver chills.

Companion viewing: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Silence of the Lambs, Manhunter -----