Film Review: Building a Better Cannibal — “Hannibal Rising”

French actor Gaspard Ulliel stars in a surprisingly classy prequel in the Hannibal Lecter saga.

By Betsy Sherman

Considering that the road from the 1991 movie “The Silence of the Lambs” to “Hannibal Rising” consists of a dreadfully over-the-top sequel (the 2001 “Hannibal”) and a decent remake (the 2002 “Red Dragon,” from a novel which had been filmed in 1986 as “Manhunter”), the new prequel in the Hannibal Lecter saga is startlingly classy. In it, the talented French actor Gaspard Ulliel brings a new dimension to the character that was created by novelist Thomas Harris, and had been played by Brian Cox (“Manhunter”) before becoming definitively associated with Anthony Hopkins. Ulliel portrays the notorious serial killer during his formative years as a medical student in Europe.

The younger actor – whose weird smile and demonic dimple recall the face of another movie icon, Malcolm McDowell’s Alex in “A Clockwork Orange” – pays homage to Hopkins’ characterization by holding himself with a stiff, formal posture that recalls the man in the cell in “Silence.” But “Hannibal Rising” isn’t a story that lends itself to the black comic glee relished by Hopkins; it’s a handsome and involving macabre drama, with a pathos that tempers the horror-movie shocks. Scripted by Harris, the film was directed by Peter Webber (“Girl With a Pearl Earring”), and features fine performances not only from Ulliel, but also from supporting players Gong Li and Rhys Ifans.

To answer the question “What made Hannibal a cannibal?”, Harris has devised a traumatic series of events that his anti-hero undergoes as a child in his native Lithuania. The story begins amidst the chaos of war in 1944. Hannibal, his aristocratic parents, and his little sister Mischa flee a Nazi advance on Lecter Castle for the safety of a nearby cottage. An attack leaves the children orphans, and prey to a band of thieves led by Grutas (Ifans). The crooks hole up in the cottage waiting for the roads to clear. It’s the dead of winter and there’s no food in the cupboards. After a few days, the crazed scumbags poke at Mischa’s flesh with a ravenous look in their eyes.

Cut to eight years later, with Hannibal a resident of the Stalinist orphanage now housed in Lecter Castle. Fractured memories of Mischa’s demise rise to the surface of his nightmares. The teen escapes and makes his way to France, only to find that his uncle who lived there has died. His uncle’s widow, Lady Murasaki (Gong Li), takes him under her wing. She teaches him pride in family, through stories of her samurai ancestors; hones his physical skills by instructing him in swordfighting; and encourages his taste for the gruesome by showing him scroll paintings of the severed heads of her forbearers’ enemies impaled on spikes. By the time he moves to Paris to study medicine, the accomplished young Hannibal (he plays the lute and draws impeccable charcoal portraits) has the tools he needs to strike back at the criminals who committed an unspeakable wrong against his sister.

Of course, this is not your ordinary tale of revenge. We watch “Hannibal Rising” knowing that the sympathetic war orphan will eventually become the creepy older man who dines on a census taker’s liver “with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.” Thankfully, Ulliel has the stuff to hit a range of notes and still retain an air of mystery (the ambiguity of his character in Andre Techine’s 2003 “Strayed,” is what made that movie work). His Hannibal is intelligent, determined, intuitive, and increasingly able to detach from human emotion. It’s through the eyes of Lady Murasaki that we experience the latter development. There’s a teasing eroticism to the pair’s relationship, but also a deep bond of mutual need; she helps her nephew carry out his mission, but is pained that he’s channeling his creativity towards violence.

But although it’s sad, we wouldn’t want it any other way. This, after all, is the man who put the gore in gourmand, and in doing so become one of screendom’s classic villains. Hannibal’s first deadly action is his revenge on a racist French butcher who insults Lady Murasaki. The household’s cook has extolled the cheeks as the tastiest part of a fish; therefore, this body part becomes Hannibal’s first fetish. It’s an effectively eerie bit of symbolism, what with rosy, kissable, pinchable cheeks suggesting the sort of storybook childhood that Hannibal and Mischa had before their tragedy. As Hannibal tracks down members of Grutas’ gang, director Webber stages some delectable killings, especially the one in the morgue in which Hannibal works nights (the film has fabulous production design, and very smart costumes).

With Hannibal merely a villain in training, “Hannibal Rising” is lucky to have Rhys Ifans as its go-to bad-guy. The terrific Welsh actor, who never does anything halfway, is repulsive in 1944 as a village thug who idolizes the SS, and a whole new kind of loathsome in the 1950s scenes in which he’s a prosperous, oily trafficker who keeps women locked in cages. If somebody’s gotta be turned into vittles, it might as well be him.

Betsy Sherman has written about movies, old and new, for The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, and The Improper Bostonian, among others. She holds a degree in archives management from Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science. When she grows up, she wants to be Barbara Stanwyck.

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