The Good: Great character development, Good acting, Generally decent story.
The Bad: Some predictability as the film moves on, Story is not entirely focused
The Basics: In a prequel to The Silence Of The Lambs, Hannibal Lecter's backstory is made explicit as a young man hunts down the men who once held him and his sister hostage.
There are not a whole ton of prequels that I actually find myself enjoying when it comes to movies. Arguably the most famous group of prequels, those to the Star Wars Trilogy, illustrate the problems with trying to go back and retroactively create story and history: the effects advance leaving baffling timeline issues and if the writer lacks a certain attention to detail, they are unable to make the prequel synch up with the work that is supposed to come after it. So, I was pretty skeptical when my wife had me sit down to watch Hannibal Rising, a prequel to The Silence Of The Lambs (reviewed here!). All my reservations fled as the movie began to unfold, though.
Hannibal Rising is an appropriately dark film which evolves smoothly into a character study of a traumatized young man that both makes one care about the man he will develop into and effectively tells a story for those completely ignorant of the other chapters of the character's tale. The strength of Hannibal Rising is not in how well it jives with the story of Hannibal Lecter that most people are familiar with, but rather with how wonderfully it stands independent of that. As one who did not remember all of The Silence Of The Lambs that well when I sat down to watch Hannibal Rising with my wife, I was pleasantly surprised by how accessible the film was to me and how engaging it was without considering any comparative aspects of the character's journey. This is both the beginning of a tormented character's story and a wonderfully independent work which makes it an engrossing film.
In the waning days of World War II, the Germans are withdrawing from the Eastern Front, but not without gaining defecting Russians to join them. In Lithuania, a group of murderous turncoats hide out from the advancing Soviet army in the lodge of the Lecter family, the two Lecter children having been orphaned by an attack shortly before. As the temperatures drop in Lithuania, Mischa Lecter falls ill and the six soldiers decide to cannibalize her. Hannibal Lecter, as the house is taken down by Soviet fire, escapes and makes it to Soviet shelter. Years later, he is mute from his trauma and he gets a clue to his remaining family, so he flees his Soviet orphanage and makes the perilous journey to France.
In Paris, Hannibal takes up residence with his aunt, the Lady Murasaki, who was widowed when Hannibal's uncle died. Under her care, Hannibal begins to speak once again and he begins to practice martial arts and develops a curiosity for cooking and medical practices. But Hannibal is troubled by the demons of his time imprisoned by the soldiers and he discovers that the five of them who are still alive might be found. After making his way back to the lodge and burying his sister's bones, Hannibal recovers the dogtags that offer him the clues to finding the men who ate his sister and he begins a hunt that crosses borders and sends him into a state of being that makes him something other than human.
Hannibal Rising is about the descent of a man into a serial killer, but the truth is that the reason the film works so well is that even if viewers do not know where the movie is going - i.e. who Hannibal Lecter becomes - it still tells a compelling character story which is intriguing and atypical. The real challenge facing those creating Hannibal Rising is to make a story where the viewer cares about the protagonist, even for those who know that the protagonist in this becomes one of the most villainous cinematic antagonists of all time. And the creative team does that remarkably effectively in Hannibal Rising.
Hannibal does not start out as a monster. In fact, starting the film with him as just a kid, the viewer is almost immediately forced to empathize with him. He is a good kid, caught in a war zone. He listens to his mother and father and he saves his little sister, so nothing bad happens to her. And when the six traitorous soldiers take the pair hostage, Hannibal works to keep Mischa alive and safe as best he can. Hannibal is just as traumatized as most anyone would be under such circumstances. The story works.
But more than that, the character works. Hannibal is characterized as an exceptionally loyal young man, even if he is emotionally damaged. He, therefore, develops a strong affection for Lady Murasaki and the viewer feels that immediately. So when Hannibal's first victim becomes the butcher who insults Lady Murasaki with some exceptionally offensive remarks - in the public market, no less - the viewer almost feels that Hannibal is justified in attacking him. Murasaki, for her part, becomes likable for appreciating the lengths Hannibal is going to for her and doing what she can to stop Hannibal for suffering the consequences of exacting justice on her behalf.
But what follows is a very standard revenge story. Hannibal Rising becomes about the hunt and as soon as a character is reintroduced into the film, they simply become a target. The viewer does not so much care about the wholesale slaughter of the Lithuanian traitors as they come to expect them to die at Hannibal's hands. So, for example, even when Hannibal spares Kolnas, the viewer expects that this is not the end of it, especially with the way the scene is telegraphed (there is a gun and an oven involved and it doesn't take much cleverness on the viewer's part to see where Kolnas is going to go).
What the film has is some pretty stellar acting. Kevin McKidd has a supporting role as Kolnas and he is able to flex acting muscles that he wasn't given the chance to on Rome (reviewed here!). Rhys Ifans is remarkably cold as the principle villain, Grutas and he becomes a worthy adversary for Hannibal. Indeed, one of the issues that Hannibal Rising had was to create a villain worthy of Hannibal Lecter and embodying him with an actor who could hold his own. Ifans does that and he makes his turn vivid with a portrayal of exceptional cruelty. While Lecter is cold and methodical, guided by a sense of righteousness, Grutas is vindictive and mean, with Ifans bringing those traits out masterfully in his few scenes.
Gong Li is memorable as Lady Murasaki. She brings a warmth to the role which she is able to evolve through the course of the picture. Initially Li plays Murasaki with a maternal instinct that makes the basis for her relationship with Hannibal viable. But as the two spend more time with one another and become partners in crime, Li softens the visage of Murasaki and makes her more vulnerable and womanly (note: those are two separate things, to be feminine is not a vulnerability!). What Li does best in Hannibal Rising is sell the critical scene where Murasaki absolves Lecter for his past and tries to get him to move on. She seems to accept him, but Murasaki does her best to try to get Lecter to acknowledge his own powerlessness and Gong Li's presentation in that scene is powerful.
But most of the film hinges on the performance of Gaspard Ulliel as Hannibal Lecter. He nails it. Ulliel is able to connote intelligence with his eyes and a wide array of emotions. Perhaps the best example of this comes when Hannibal witnesses the French police using a truth syrum on a suspect. Without words, the viewer watches Ulliel as Lecter realizes what is happening with the man and exactly what the application of the syrum could mean. Ulliel says so much without saying a word, but he does great work with the lines he is given as well. Also, he speaks fine with the sword he uses.
In the end, Hannibal Rising is an unlikely prequel which stands on its own and tells a vital character story that seemed unnecessary to tell. But if Darth Vader can get the story of his downfall, so too can Hannibal Lecter and the result is a single film which is better than the story the three Star Wars prequels tell.
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© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.