Hannibal the Cannibal's early suppers
BY JASON BLAIR
HANNIBAL RISING: Directed by Peter Webber. Written by Thomas Harris. Cinematography, Ben Davis. Music, Ilan Eshkeri and Shigeru Umebayashi. Starring Gaspard Ulliel, Gong Li, Rhys Ifans and Richard Brake. MGM, 2007. R. 117 minutes.
The guiltiest of my guilty pleasure films, Top Secret! gave me laughing fits throughout adolescence. Written and directed by the team behind Airplane!, Top Secret! stars a young Val Kilmer as Nick Rivers, an ersatz Elvis Presley who, while on tour in East Germany, becomes involved with the French Resistance. A rich parody of WWII spy films, it's one of the silliest movies ever made. It's also one of the most quotable, with lines like "I know a little German." Pause. "He's sitting right over there." The complexity of Eastern Europe during wartime was of no concern to the filmmakers, which probably explains why Top Secret! came to mind as I suffered through Hannibal Rising. For fans of Hannibal Lecter, the similarity isn't a good thing.
Hannibal Rising is a prequel to the Lecter trilogy, a cycle containing one bona fide classic (The Silence of the Lambs), a marginal sequel (Hannibal) and two versions of the first installment (Manhunter, Red Dragon). Novelist Thomas Harris wrote each of the four Lecter novels but wisely elected to avoid writing the screenplays — that is, until Hannibal Rising. I say "wisely" because if Hannibal Rising is evidence of anything, it's that Harris should stick to writing novels and being a recluse, his primary occupations. Lambs may have won the Big Five Oscar statuettes — picture, director, actor, actress and screenplay — but artistically, the franchise has been in decline ever since.
Hannibal Rising, as its title suggests, explores the origins of Dr. Lecter, the psychopathic forensic psychiatrist partial to eating the cheeks of his victims. According to Hannibal Rising, the boy Lecter grew up in a cultured household in the family castle in Lithuania. In other words, a typical boyhood, or at least one absent signs of the monster to come. At the outset of WWII, however, Lecter's parents are killed by German artillery while he huddles nearby with his sister. But the event that alters Lecter's outlook forever is the death of his sister by rogue Lithuanian soldiers, so starved that they eat her for dinner. This ghastly event occurs off-screen in Hannibal Rising but recurs thematically to club us on the head.
Hannibal Rising then devolves into a revenge flick, with the 20-year-old Hannibal (Gaspard Ulliel) on the hunt for every soldier responsible for his loss. Hannibal travels to Paris to contact his Japanese aunt, Lady Murasaki (Gong Li); under her tutelage, Lecter devours her culture, but his training feels rushed, piecemeal and superficial. Lecter studies martial arts, sacred masks and antique swords, which before long he's using to chilling effect on the locals, being the curious boy he is. Then it's on to medical school, where Lecter learns to appreciate anatomy and cadavers. The problem with Lecter's preparation in these scenes is that Hannibal Rising treats him as if he's a puzzle to be assembled, as if aggregation rather than inspiration is a convincing way to create a character. Very few, if any, of these moments are subtly woven or artfully handled. There's no depth or complexity to Lecter's development or by extension to Lecter himself.
Regrettably, Gaspard Ulliel is poorly cast as the adolecent Lecter. He looks like an extra from Dead Poets Society, not the early version of Hannibal the Cannibal. Ulliel does bring an honest accent to the role (he's French), not to mention a set of wicked crescent-shaped dimples. But he's mechanical here, a fact the screenplay doesn't help. Contrived and clichéd in almost every aspect, Harris's script doesn't flesh out the growing fiend within young Lecter. Instead, Harris provides us a comically thin treatment of the origins of the man we all love to hate.