Origin stories are all the rage in Hollywood these days, though the motives are purely mercenary. No profitable franchise can afford to overlook its genesis. Alternate titles that have been attached to this prequel over the last few years range from the pragmatic Hannibal 4 (which at least has a certain candour) to the classical The Lecter Variations (too pretentious!) to the sensational Young Hannibal: Behind the Mask (too cable TV).
The pseudo-biblical 'Hannibal Rising' is all very well I suppose, though as Thomas Harris fans who have read the book will know, the story itself is more of a letdown, reducing one of the most chilling incarnations of absolute evil in recent popular culture to the status of a psychological hard-luck case.
The movie - which is scripted by Harris - spares us the chore of wading through his gruesome descriptions of gore and violence, and many of the novel's worst howlers, but at the price of seeing Rhys Ifans eat an unplucked woodcock in slow motion (feathers flying!).
We begin under the shadow of a castle in Lithuania. Count Lecter beats a speedy retreat to a nearby cottage to protect his family from the Nazis - only to die in the crossfire between Germans and the Russians. With mother also out for the count that leaves 8-year-old Hannibal fending for his baby sister, Mischa, when a group of local thugs crash the party, intent on pillage and what have you. To avert starvation, their leader Vladis Grutas (the aforementioned Mr Ifans) turns his beady eyes on the children, and decides plump Mischa would make a tasty soup.
Next thing you know our Hannibal is suffering recurring - but oh-so-vague - flashbacks in his sleep. The war is over and he's mercifully mute, though hardly the most popular orphan in the school: 'Hannibal, you don't honour the human pecking order,' his headmaster admonishes him with a sigh. 'You're always hurting the bullies.'
With a hop, skip and a jump the tormented teen escapes to France, to find his long-lost aunt, the erotically exotic Lady Murasaki (Gong Li). She teaches him the art of swordplay, which comes in handy when a Vichy butcher throws a racist and anatomically improbable remark in her direction. Hannibal proves his devotion by carving up the lug and making off with his poisson.
Although Inspector Popil (Dominic West) can sniff his guilt, the boy trumps his lie detector test (in provincial France in the 1950s?): 'E's vanilla', marvels the doughty gendarme - a poor substitute for Clarice, it must be said.
Taking up medicine (though cooking might have been more a propos), Lecter finesses his slicing and dicing skills. He also administers a truth serum to himself before dropping off one night, to clarify those dreams. It is enough to put him on the trail of the brigands who ate baby sis, and who surely deserve no better in return.
Although he seems to have been cast on the strength of his remarkably high cheek bones - not dissimilar to those sported by Hugo Weaving's masked V in V for Vendetta - French actor Gaspard Ulliel (A Very Long Engagement) makes a fine young cannibal. But the idea that this sad, sadistic adolescent snob might grow into the man played by Anthony Hopkins never takes root for an instant.
Gong Li isn't given much to sink her teeth into as Lady M, not least because there's never much left over when Rhys Ifans has been chewing the scenery (and the woodcocks). Director Peter Webber gives it a patina of class - which is presumably why they hired the man who made The Girl With the Pearl Earring - but keeps the excitement on a tepid simmer.
Forgetting, even, that The Silence of the Lambs and Manhunter, are both outstanding modern thrillers, Hannibal Rising still falls short of the remake, Red Dragon and the sequel, Hannibal by quite some distance. It's no secret that Thomas Harris's writing has been in steep decline, but this must be terminal, surely: Hannibal's New Low.
Titles related to this article