‘Hannibal’ fails to rise

“A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.”

With those words, Hannibal Lecter secured his place in film history as one of the most menacing screen villains of all time. However, despite the genius of Anthony Hopkins’ performance as Lecter in 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs, the franchise has never come close to matching the brilliance of that film, and Hannibal Rising is no exception.

Starring rising French actor Gaspard Ulliel, the film chronicles Hannibal’s journey toward becoming an infamous serial killer. After witnessing the murder of his parents and young sister during World War II, he heads to France and moves in with his uncle’s widow, Lady Murasaki (Gong Li). Soon thereafter, Hannibal sets out on a quest for revenge against the men responsible for his family’s demise.

Ulliel, best known to American audiences for the French import A Very Long Engagement, delivers an appropriately chilling performance as Lecter. At crucial moments in the film, Ulliel channels Hopkins’ portrayal of Lecter, most notably in his interactions with the French policemen who suspect Hannibal’s involvement in a string of local murders. Also, Rhys Ifans (Notting Hill) is convincingly menacing as Vladis Grutas, Hannibal’s primary target.

Thanks to director Peter Webber (Girl with a Pearl Earring), the film, which was shot entirely in Prague, is visually captivating, and composers Ilan Eshkeri and Shigeru Umebayashi contribute a fine score, which befits the dark nature of Hannibal’s journey. However, despite the talent involved in the production, Hannibal Rising suffers from a tedious and poorly constructed script, which nullifies the efforts of the film’s cast and crew.

Ironically, Hannibal Rising is the first film in the series to be penned by Thomas Harris, author of the Lecter novels on which the films are based. Reportedly, Harris wrote both the novel and screenplay for Hannibal Rising simultaneously, and unfortunately, it shows. He fails to adequately adapt his novel for the screen, choosing instead to remain reverently faithful to his original text. The reclusive novelist claims to have purposely avoided the film adaptations of his works to avoid any influence on his writing. However, one can’t help but wonder if even a single viewing of The Silence of the Lambs, which earned an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, would have positively affected Harris’s approach to writing this latest film.

Since the 1999 release of Star Wars: Episode One – The Phantom Menace, Hollywood has been obsessed with exploring the mysterious origins of some of cinema’s most iconic heroes and villains. Hannibal Rising attempts, though often feebly, to achieve genuine drama, but for the most part, this latest chapter of the Lecter saga lacks the gravitas of films such as Revenge of the Sith, Batman Begins and Casino Royale.

The film claims to reveal the circumstances that caused Lecter to become the monster he is in earlier films. However, while Hannibal Rising provides the initial rationale behind Lecter’s transformation, it never succeeds in putting the audience inside his head. Instead, the film glosses over much of his development, choosing instead to focus solely on the tired revenge plotline.

Hannibal Rising never fully explores its protagonist’s gradual descent into madness and neglects to properly bridge the gap between the compassionate youth of its opening and the homicidal mastermind he is destined to become. With a stronger script, the film could have been a compelling portrait of how innocence is corrupted by unspeakable evil, but in assuming his skill as a credible screenwriter, Harris essentially sabotages his own creation.

Yet while it never approaches the greatness of The Silence of the Lambs or even the more conventional filmmaking of 2002’s Red Dragon, Hannibal Rising still offers strong performances and enough tense moments to surpass 2001’s preposterous Hannibal. Although it certainly fails to achieve its potential, Hannibal Rising is still worth seeing, if only for the glimmer of insight that it offers into the twisted psyche of one of the most fascinating fictional characters in history.

Grade: C+Rating: RRunning time: 120 mins.