A not-so-fine young cannibal

by Glen Baity

First, the good news: Anthony Hopkins has a new movie coming out in which he plays a brilliant criminal who mercilessly toys with the detective investigating him for murder. At least some of the scenes transpire while Hopkins’ character is in prison, with that distant yet intensely focused look on his face, priming the detective to spend a few days chasing his tail. I haven’t seen it yet, but the preview looks awesome.

Now, the bad: it wasn’t an advertisement for the new Hannibal movie.

And finally, the worst news: the spot in question ran right before Hannibal Rising.

Of course, it’d be unfair to judge this newest piece of Lambs mythology too harshly because of an accidental pairing – not every theater will show that trailer, after all – but for me, it cast this lackluster entry in cold relief, underscoring the fact that the franchise’s lifeblood has moved on, quite happily, leaving this corpse to rot in his absence.

Released a mere three months after the corresponding Thomas Harris novel hit bookstores, Hannibal Rising might be the most transparent cash-in by a major author since Michael Crichton dusted off his velociraptors for a pair of ill-conceived trips back to Jurassic Park.

The prequel to Red Dragon (or Manhunter if you prefer), The Silence of the Lambs, and Hannibal is the thoroughly unnecessary story of how Hannibal Lecter became Hannibal the Cannibal, which should be anathema to anyone who had nightmares about the character throughout the early 1990s. Indeed, the film’s most grievous error is misunderstanding what makes Hannibal a great character. He’s interesting not because he was a monster, but because he was a monster shrouded in mystery. That doesn’t mean he’s evil without reason, of course, only that there’s no apparent reason. Crucial difference, that, and one that Hannibal Rising misses by a country mile.

The film spends two hours throwing off the shroud, and while the result isn’t necessarily terrible on its own, it lowers the most-loved sociopath in modern fiction to an unforgivably conventional level.

So what’s the big answer? From whence arises Lecter’s insatiable lust for cheeky flesh?

In a word: Nazis.

The film opens in 1944, joining the Lecter family as they flee their Lithuanian estate near the end of World War II. Before long, mother, father and servants are dead and young Hannibal alone is left to protect his little sister, Mischa.

When their hideout is invaded by members of the Third Reich seeking shelter from the harsh winter, the children spend days in mortal terror, which is compounded when the Nazis, on the brink of starvation, start glaring hungrily at the young Lecters.

You can guess where it goes from there, but suffice it to say one of the two survives intact. Bodily, at least.

The story picks up eight years later, when an adolescent Hannibal (22-year-old French actor Gaspard Ulliel, in his American debut), liberated from his sanity by persistent memories of his sister’s death, happens across a member of the Nazi brigade in civilized society. The information gleaned from that one, prior to his grisly death, leads to another, and another, until the budding serial killer is on a full-fledged mission to exact revenge on the thugs who ate his sister and left him for dead.

The film is at least somewhat entertaining despite several mitigating factors. One of them is the cliché-addled script, adapted from the novel by Harris himself.

Another is Ulliel. For starters, he’s what those in the medical profession call “a weird-looking dude.” I suspect he’s about a foot too tall and far too lanky to realistically be a younger version of the short, stocky Hopkins, and in any case he looks more like the unholy spawn of Crispin Glover and the Joker than a young Lecter. While Ulliel might be a fine actor in other films, he’s understandably constricted here, beholden to Hopkins’ mannerisms, which makes for an awkward, uneven performance. Harris imagines the young Lecter as less of a chatterbox than he is in middle age, and when Ulliel isn’t talking he does well enough. But those priceless conversational moments from The Silence of the Lambs are prominent among this film’s casualties.

In truth, it’s a bit unfair to Ulliel that he has to play Hannibal at all. Because this angry young man is so far removed from the mad genius who would spar with Clarice Starling years later, Harris would’ve only had to make a few minor tweaks to turn young Hannibal into a completely different entity, which would’ve been better for all involved.

Instead, it feels like the persona of Hannibal was slapped on this product to make it sell – nothing more, nothing less. As you might expect, knowing Hannibal’s background doesn’t enhance the character in any significant way; to the contrary, he becomes just another murderer who would’ve set down a different path were it not for the extraordinary trauma in his childhood. That’s too bad, but it’s fitting in a way – the author has come full circle by cannibalizing his own creation.

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