Last week, Thomas Harris’ novel about Hannibal Lecter’s early days, “Hannibal Rising,” dropped off the New York Times’ top 10 fiction best-sellers — after less than two months. Could interest in Hannibal the Cannibal be drooping?
The film version, written by Harris, was designed to be released at just the moment when the novel was topping bookstore lists. But it’s so tepid and pointless that it seems unlikely to last a month in multiplexes. In spite of a solid cast and some colorful location photography, it never becomes much more than a standard revenge epic. As an attempt to show what makes Lecter tick, it’s a total washout.
Beginning with a childhood prologue set in 1944 in Eastern Europe, the movie shows Lecter and his younger sister, Mischa, struggling to survive as their parents are mowed down in front of them. A hungry gang of Nazi sympathizers kill and eat Mischa, and Lecter vows to track them down when he grows up.
Haunted by persistent nightmares about the cannibals, Lecter turns up eight years later at the home of his widowed aunt, Lady Murasaki (Gong Li), who lost her own family at Hiroshima. There he starts his campaign of torture and decapitation, polishing his new craft by dispensing with a local war criminal who insults his aunt.
How does he kill them? Let us count the ways. Unfortunately, body count is what drives the plot.
Unless you’re fascinated by the variety of ways in which evil people can be shot, beheaded, stabbed or chopped up, it’s a lousy way to spend two hours. Maybe it’s because he’s young, but this Lecter doesn’t even do it in the style to which Anthony Hopkins became accustomed. He does, however, manage to find an appropriate outlet for his obsessions by getting a job cutting up dead bodies at a medical school.
The director, Peter Webber, had a minor art-house success with 2003’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” and he does demonstrate a restraint that’s rare in modern horror films. Most of the killings are not shown directly. Webber would rather show blood spattered on Lecter’s face than include the moment when a head is separated from a body.
Still, good taste is not exactly what you expect (or necessarily want) from a Lecter horror show. The most outrageous moments in “Manhunter” and “The Silence of the Lambs,” when Lecter is outwitting authorities and demonstrating his genius, are what you tend to remember.
According to the press kit, Lecter’s exposure to atrocities is what “changes him forever.” Why, then, do so many other victims of the Nazis survive without becoming cannibals? Harris’ script never comes close to explaining why Lecter behaves as he does.
The movie simply strands Gaspard Ulliel, the exceptional 22-year-old French actor who plays Lecter. He demonstrated in Andre Techine’s “Strayed” (2003) that he knows exactly how to play a feral manchild with strong survival instincts, but Webber encourages him to play so many scenes with a silly smirk that his performance approaches self-parody.