I went into Hannibal Rising with pretty low expectations. Not only was it the most critically reviled of the film adaptations of Thomas Harris’s novels, with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 16%, but it was also the only one of them to feature no actors from previous versions, as it is a prequel set during our favorite cannibal’s childhood and early adulthood. Hannibal Lecter himself is the only character we have met before who appears here. Still, I thought that it might be one of those instances in which there was a worthwhile film in all of this that was merely “bad” in comparison to the rest of the franchise. Unfortunately, despite a couple of strong performances and some great European shooting locations, Rising is still a miss.
The film opens in the surprisingly happy Lecter household in Lithuania during WWII in 1941. The Lecters are apparently aristocrats, as we see they live in a fairly large castle, which they depart in order to move further from the advancing German lines and take up residency in the family’s hunting lodge. The 1944 Soviet Baltic Offensive pushed the Germans back, although a German plane destroys a tank near the Lecter’s lodge on its way out, killing everyone but an elementary aged Hannibal and his sister, Mischa. Shortly thereafter, the lodge is discovered by six deserters, including their leader, a Nazi collaborator named Vladis Grutas (Rhys Ifans) who convinced the others to join him, although their defection proved to be in vain as the war started to turn. Once supplies dwindle down to nothing, the six men kill and eat little Mischa, justifying their decision by claiming that she was sick and malnourished and would soon be dead anyway. When Hannibal tries to stop them, one of the men breaks his arm and the boy blacks out; when he regains consciousness, he is discovered by a group of Soviets, who find him wearing the shackles of his captors and mute from the trauma.
Eight years later, Hannibal (Gaspard Ulliel) is once again living in his childhood home, although Lithuania had come under Soviet occupation (as it would remain until 1990) and Lecter Castle had since been turned into an orphanage. Despite his muteness, he cries out at night for Mischa in his dreams, which makes him a target for bullying by an older boy who holds some authority in the group home. When the boy attempts to strike Hannibal, he simply raises a fork, which lodges in his bully’s fist. As punishment, Hannibal is locked in the castle’s dungeon, but he gets out through a secret passage that is unknown to the others, sneaks into what was once his mother’s bedroom and gathers some family documents, and escapes across the Soviet border into unoccupied lands, making his way to the home of his late father’s brother in France. He arrives too late to reunite with his uncle, who has recently passed away, but is taken in by his widowed aunt, known only as Lady Murasaki (Gong Li). She shows Hannibal the first kindness he has experienced in a long time, which helps to rehabilitate him somewhat and even results in him once again regaining the will and ability to speak. She also shows him her family shrine, which includes a katana and her ancestor’s armor, and teaches him to swordfight.
When Murasaki experiences racist harassment at the hands of a local butcher, Hannibal fights the man and is arrested, but is released to his aunt’s custody, as the man was a known Nazi collaborator and has few friends among the locals. Hannibal later tracks down and kills the man with the Murasaki family sword, decapitating him and presenting the head to Murasaki just as her ancestor had decapitated his enemies in the scrolls she shared with him. This, Hannibal’s first murder, is investigated by French Inspector Pascal Popil (Dominic West), who was made famous for his testimony about Nazi war crimes at Nuremberg. Although there’s little to exonerate Hannibal, when the butcher’s head is placed on a pike near the police station with a swastika carved into it while Hannibal is being interrogated, he is released.
Eventually, Hannibal becomes the youngest student admitted to medical school in France, where he gets a student job preparing cadavers. Murasaki also moves to Paris, as the Lecter family estate is taken by the state due to arrears. At his Parisian school, Hannibal once again meets Popil, who is interrogating a war criminal using sodium thiopental; under the influence of the drug, the man seems to recall repressed memories. Seizing upon the opportunity to unlock his own forgotten memories of the men who killed Mischa, Hannibal drugs himself and recalls more of the events of his last days at the Lecter family hunting lodge and that he was saved by one of the men (Goran Kostić) who was killed by falling debris. Hannibal sneaks back into the country and returns to the lodge, pursued by Dortlich (Richard Brake), another of his former captors who has since become a border guard and recognized the Lecter name on the boy’s visa. Hannibal finds the entire group of deserters’ service tags in the lodge and, after capturing and torturing Dortlich into giving up information about the remaining four, kills him.
Now armed with the names of his sister’s killers, Hannibal learns that one of them, Kolnas (Kevin McKidd) is living in Fontainebleau, part of the Parisian metropolitan area. Lecter finds the restaurant that the man now owns, accompanied by Lady Murasaki, and confirms the man’s identity; he now has his own family, which includes a young daughter who wears a bracelet that was once Mischa’s. The death of Dortlich has put the three deserters still living in Europe on alert, and Grutas, now a human trafficker, dispatches Milko (Stephen Walters) to kill Hannibal, but the latter kills the former by drowning him in embalming fluid. Popil also becomes invested in these killings and is suspicious of Hannibal, but after Murasaki is kidnapped and Hannibal kills Kolnas in his pursuit of Grutas, the boy apparently dies in either an explosion or the ensuing fire aboard Grutas’s boat as Popil and Murasaki watch. In reality, Hannibal had managed to slip away, making his way west to take his final revenge on the last living deserter (Ivan Marevich) in Canada before heading south to the United States, where he will eventually become the Chesapeake Ripper and, well, you know the rest.
We don’t need a prequel explaining how Hannibal the Cannibal came to be the way that he is. I have a reputation, at least among my fellow contributors here, as the person who most wants an explanation or a resolution in my media, and I think that’s a fair assessment. I’m very much a systems thinker in a lot of ways, and that’s probably one of the reasons that I get trapped in the event horizon of Thomas Harris’s stories; despite being works that are just serial killer crime stories, they are nonetheless exquisitely crafted with great care, creating a lore that’s not “missing” from something like a Lincoln Rhyme novel, but is absent from them. On the other hand, I’ve long gone on record about my feelings that horror is best left unexplained. Terror that is inexplicable is terror that is its own exponential, and although I understand audience demand for more detail and backstory, as I often want the same when it comes to other genres, that doesn’t apply to someone like Hannibal Lecter. He’s just a well-educated serial killer with a talent for reading people very well, and that’s all that he needs to be. Although the NBC Hannibal series is also a prequel, as it explores the entwined personal and professional relationships between Lecter and Will Graham that are all prologue to the first appearance of Lecter on page or screen in Red Dragon, that’s not an “origin story” like this is, and our impressions of the Lecter character are harmed by this story, not enhanced by it. Even the revelation that Hannibal himself had eaten of the broth made from Mischa (and that he may unconsciously be seeking to kill all those who know the truth rather than truly seeking revenge for her) lands with a dull thud, as we in the audience have already assumed that Hannibal had done so, either unknowingly and learning the truth later or being too consumed by hunger to care in the moment, hence the repressed memories.
A Hannibal Lecter who is just a brilliant European psychologist who uses his sophistication as a shield against scrutiny into his depraved cannibalistic urges, a Hannibal Lecter who effortlessly diverts any attempts to see past this shield by deflecting his interrogators’ questions and seeing through them to their deepest fears and insecurities; those are much more interesting characters than a Jokeresque Eurotwink strip-mall samurai seeking revenge. As ridiculous as that combination of words sounds all together, it’s still too grounded, in the sense that Hannibal should be a human so corrupted and warped by his desires that we can barely recognize his way of thinking as being like our own, who just happens to exist in a very down-to-earth, grounded FBI procedural. That’s the common element of all of the killers in this franchise, and that’s what makes it work. The Chesapeake Ripper, the Tooth Fairy/Red Dragon, Buffalo Bill: their compulsions and dark desires make them otherworldly, and even though we also know them as Lecter, Francis Dolarhyde, and Jame Gumb, that doesn’t make the fact that they could exist in our world any less scary. This Hannibal we can understand and even sympathize with. It just doesn’t work.
Even taken on its own and out of the context of the larger franchise, the film fails as a simple vengeance period piece. The best sequence, in which Hannibal escapes over the Soviet line into unoccupied territory, occurs very early on in the run time; nothing that comes after it matches it for suspense and thrill, and that’s long before Hannibal’s first kill. Hannibal’s slayings are gruesome and joyless, but not scary, because Hannibal never kills anyone with whom the audience can sympathize or like. The “least” deserving of his victims is “only” a Nazi collaborator who slings crass, racially charged sexual epithets at Murasaki; everyone else he kills was complicit in the murder and consumption of a child… on top of being Nazi collaborators. The Hannibal of this movie is basically post-war Dexter (disclosure: I have never seen Dexter), a serial killer who only kills Nazis, cannibals, and human traffickers, which means he’d be the problematic hero of any other story instead of the villain protagonist we have here. That has the potential to be an interesting story, but Rising is not that narrative.
Gong Li’s Lady Murasaki is the most out of place element here while also being the best. While Hannibal is static–violent, sadistic, clever, and remorseless–throughout, Murasaki is one of the only characters with an arc. She genuinely did love Hannibal’s uncle, and the loss of his estate weighs heavily on her, especially as she comes to realize that the young man she took into her home as the last living connection to her husband has put her in a precarious position. She still genuinely loves Hannibal as well, in spite of his violent tendencies, but as much as she wants to be the chain that binds him to a kind of morality, bearing witness to his viciousness forces her to realize that she can’t change him into something that he’s not. Gong’s performance is nuanced, thoughtful, and subtle, and I wish we saw more of her in other films. Gaspard Ulliel was widely praised when the film was released; any review that is positive specifically cites his performance, but I wasn’t enamored. Ulliel is a good actor, but here he’s all sneer and no substance. This isn’t just in comparison to the other versions of Lecter that we’ve seen; although Rising predates X-Men: First Class by four years, the latter film has a spiritual similarity in the way that Magneto tracks down several Nazis who escaped justice and kills them. In that film, our vengeful killer is unrelenting in his pursuit of his goals, as is Hannibal here, but Michael Fassbender brings an undercurrent of ambiguity to Magneto that is not just absent in Ulliel’s Lecter, but missing. I do think that Ulliel would probably make a fantastic Joker, though, if any filmmaker were brave enough to take that chance.
This was a fairly difficult movie to track down, although if you can trick Netflix into thinking you’re in Germany (wink wink), you can find it on their service in that country. It’s not really worth the trouble, though.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond