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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Hannibal Rising

I know it sounds odd, but I’ve always had a little bit of a crush on a certain cannibal. I know I’m not the only one, but it doesn’t speak well of us to admit that we not only like this cinematic chef, but we actually root for him to get away with his seasoned sins and criminal cookery. With this in mind, I was very worried that the new film Hannibal Rising, now at the Essex Cinemas, might not do justice to the iconic figure of Hannibal Lecter, that crafty gourmand that first became a household name with The Silence of the Lambs back in 1991 and who then reappeared in the self-titled Hannibal in 2001 and again in Red Dragon in 2002. In each instance the stylish psycho psychiatrist was played to the hilt by Anthony Hopkins (Bobby), whose well-established career as a journeyman actor reached matinee idol status thanks to this remarkably complex character. So what might Hannibal be like without Hopkins? Well, the doctor did make his debut before Hopkins took on the part in the little seen (at least before The Silence of the Lambs generated new-found interest) 1986 Michael Mann movie Manhunter, based on the book Red Dragon. Dr. Lecter was played with little consequence by Scottish actor Brian Cox, best known now to American audiences as either Ward Abbott in The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy or as William Stryker in The X-Men trilogy. Obviously, then, it would seem that the popularity of Hannibal Lecter has been indelibly linked to Sir Anthony, and so how could a prequel sans Hopkins possibly sparkle?

I could predict before
Hannibal Rising even opened that critics would be harsh. Besides being Hopkins-free, the movie is, after all, the fifth to feature the character, and almost any time a movie wanders that far along the path, whether forward or back, it is going to suffer from audience fatigue. Will people still care about our anti-hero anymore? And most of all, with a star-free cast, filmed on a shoestring in the Czech Republic look like more than the Grade Z cheese one usually finds as one of The Sci Fi Channel’s originals, the ones so bad they can make your eyes bleed and turn your brain to mush if you watch more than 15 minutes at a time. I worried. A lot. I wanted Hannibal Rising to be more than this, and, thankfully, I can report it is.

I don’t care what any of the other critics may say; take it directly from the Clam’s mouth.
Hannibal Rising is a stirring edge-of-your seat thriller, pulling back the curtain on just how the world’s most infamous (fictitious) serial killer became the man we all know today. After all, he didn’t just wake up one day in middle age and decide that a certain census worker’s liver would look delicious with “some fava beans and a nice Chianti.” There’s a whole amazing life that took place before he got to that point, and Hannibal Rising tells that story in such a way that will leave you questioning your own values by its’ end.

The tale begins in Lithuania, with an adorable six year old boy and his three year old sister playing at water’s edge near a pond outside the family’s castle estate in the early 1940s. This wide-eyed boy, so full of giggles and love for the little girl at his side can hardly be the man we know as the eater of brains, and yet in seconds we hear him called inside by his father, and sure enough, it is Hannibal Lecter and this is his baby sister Mischa.

The story that follows is rightfully gruesome and shocking as one would expect but it cleverly explains in a logical way how the childhood and young adulthood of the boy would shape the man best known as Hannibal the Cannibal. Writer Thomas Harris, who created the original character and authored all of the books on which the films have been based, wrote the screenplay for this outing, and he has done an excellent job in weaving
foreshadowing of the adult Hannibal’s stories into this saga in subtle enough ways as to barely register except on a subconscious level for fans of the other films. There is a cameo appearance for instance, of a wild boar early on, reminiscent (or prescient I guess) of the future Hannibal’s run-in with Mason Verger in the film Hannibal. We also see that wherever Hannibal lives, his room is littered with his detailed drawings and sketches, including cityscapes of European cathedrals and such, much like those he will come to cherish in his cell in The Silence of the Lambs years later. We also witness a young Hannibal’s reaction to a local butcher (the market kind) making a rather crude and racist remark to Hannibal’s Japanese aunt, and so his later explanation that the fate of the butcher was decreed by his “rude behavior” reminds us that as an adult Hannibal does not slay for pleasure but to right aberrations in civility, at least such as declared by him. And then there is the mask. Could young Hannibal not have his moment wearing a leather mask like the restraint used so famously during his incarceration in The Silence of the Lambs?

These small allusions help the viewer “see” the future Hopkins’ character in the youthful presence of French actor Gaspard Ulliel (
Jacquou le croquant), who bears little physical resemblance to the older actor except for the same piercing blue eyes that practically make you feel he is sizing everyone he stares at as if they are a potential pot roast. Ulliel does nothing to mimic Hopkins performances and yet he does a fine job as a frightened boy who grapples with ~ and eventually surrenders to ~ the madness that keeps enveloping him.

Li Gong (Miami Vice) does an understated yet effective job as Lady Murasaki Shikibu, the widow of Hannibal’s uncle. She provides the young
man a home and love after the death of his own family and he reciprocates in his own way since she, too, has lost her biological family in the bombing of Hiroshima and then her husband in France to illness. Dominic West (of tv’s “The Wire”) is an interesting choice to play the police inspector who makes it his quest to hunt down the one responsible or a series of murders in post-war France that all seem to link back to the Lecter family. His familiarity to television audiences is perhaps the reason for his casting. As the one person most well-known in the cast, he is the logical one for the audience to want to see succeed, and West plays Inspector Pope as a good, determined and just man. It’s just that we know that the men who are his “victims” are actually the men who have committed the vilest of crimes against Hannibal and his family and their deaths are about justice being dealt.

The cat-and-mouse dance between Pope and Hannibal makes up a good portion of the movie’s second half, but it is hardly a conundrum for the audience in deciding who to root for in
Hannibal Rising. The men who terrorized Hannibal and Mischa in Act One were so convincingly despicable their fates were sealed back then. Now it is only a matter of how and when. The real trick for director Peter Webber (
Girl with a Pearl Earring) is to present Hannibal as more than just another Freddie Kruger or Jason Voorhees on his path to adulthood. Fortunately, he manages restraint.

Hannibal Rising is not the best of the series, but it comes close. Nothing will ever top The Silence of the Lambs, probably because it was our first dance with the doctor, and we always are going to remember the first time with the most affection, but this is a delectable dish of its’ own, and certainly a delicious appetizer for the life ahead.

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