In the film Silence of the Lambs Anthony Hopkins turned the character of Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter into a pop culture icon with a scant sixteen minutes of screen time. The performance was the shortest to ever win a Best Actor Oscar but seems so much more substantial because of Hopkins’ command of the character. In 960 seconds Hopkins created as effective, chilling and memorable portrayal of evil as we have seen on screen. In short that performance contains everything that is so painfully missing from Hannibal Rising, the new prequel to the Lecter series.
The prequel has become the latest Hollywood marketing trick to squeeze a few extra dollars out of played-out franchises. Can’t move the story forward? Then let’s go back. Way back. In this case the story begins in Lithuania when Hannibal is just eight years old during WWII. Hitler’s invasion of the Baltic region has turned the youngster’s homeland into a bloody battlefield. The wealthy Lecter family goes into hiding, only to be discovered by troops fleeing the war torn Soviet Union. After an air attack wipes out his family, Hannibal and his little sister are left at the mercy of the desperate troops. When food runs short, the soldiers turn to the only food supply in the barren war zone—they kill and eat Hannibal’s sister Mischa.
From this bizarre and cruel beginning the film then traces Lecter’s journey through France and eventual trip to North America where he discovers the corporal epicurean delights that go along with “fava beans and a fine Chianti.”
The movie has aspirations to be a psychological study of why and how Hannibal developed a taste for human flesh, but falls short. Instead we are served a revenge drama as Hannibal tries to avenge the death of his sister, and his own morality, by coming up with unusual ways of hunting down and killing the soldiers. Too bad the methods of killing aren’t that interesting. For someone who grows up to personify evil he sure has a limited imagination when it comes to dispatching people. There are more blood and guts on display in any episode of CSI than here, and if you can get past the fact that he eats the cheeks of his victims—they’re the best part!—post mortem, he isn’t quite icky enough to grow into the Hannibal the Cannibal mask.
Perhaps the whole mess might have been saved with better casting. The young French actor Gaspard Ullielis is given the thankless role of the young Hannibal. The former model’s “dangerous” leers are more Mendocino advert than menacing, more Betsy Johnson runway than bloodthirsty. He simply doesn’t have the chops to play Lecter. Perhaps a better choice would have been Rhys Ifans, who delivers an unhinged performance as the head nasty in charge of cooking up little Mischa. His over-the-top kill for the heck of it attitude is much better suited for Hannibal.
Hannibal Rising, though it looks great and has the graceful feel of a European film, is little more than a cheap attempt to suck a few more dollars out of the bloated corpse that is the Lecter franchise.