Hannibal Rising

Reviewed by Tim Grierson

Attempting to explain the origins of the iconic character Hannibal Lecter, Hannibal Rising focuses on the brilliant serial killers formative years, but the film suffocates because of its overly somber tone and an unconvincing lead performance by Gaspard Ulliel.

Directed by Peter Webber (Girl with a Pearl Earring) and featuring Ulliel (A Very Long Engagement) as the young Hannibal, Hannibal Rising strives so vigorously to match the darkness of the earlier films, which starred Anthony Hopkins, that the end result resembles more of a soulless horror thriller than an intelligent psychological drama.

Hannibal Rising opens in Lithuania, as World War II lumbers to an end. An eight-year-old Hannibal (played by Aaron Thomas) watches as his father and mother are killed in the crossfire of Nazi and Russian shooting. Hannibal and his beloved sister Mischa (Helena Lia Tachovska) are soon kidnapped by a roving band of thugs, lead by Grutas (Rhys Ifans). Waiting out the end of the fighting and with food scarce, Grutas and his men decide that in order to survive they should eat little Mischa. Hannibal watches on helplessly, but quickly blacks out.

Cut to eight years later, when Hannibal (now played by Ulliel) lives in an orphanage still haunted by the horrors of that day. He flees to Paris to visit the only family he has left, an uncle. Once there, though, he learns that his uncle has died, leaving behind his beautiful wife, Lady Murasaki (Gong Li). Hannibal enrolls in medical school, but he remains far more committed to finding Grutas and his goons so he can exact his revenge for Mischas gruesome death. As his murderous spree begins, he must stay one step ahead of a bright inspector (Dominic West) determined to catch him.

Though Hannibal Lecters first screen appearance was in Michael Manns 1986 film Manhunter– Brian Cox played the serial killer–Hannibal Rising clearly identifies with the more famous incarnation of the character, as imagined ands immortalized by Anthony Hopkins's Oscar-wining performance. Mysterious, intelligent, and dangerous even when totally still, Hopkins Hannibal was an arresting figure, partly because the audience knew so little about what motivated his cannibalism and homicidal rage.

Novelist Thomas Harris, who first invented the Hannibal character in his 1981 work Red Dragon, finally decided to investigate his bloody creations back story, writing both the Hannibal Rising book and the subsequent screenplay adaptation.

Unfortunately, what Harris uncovers, and what Webber tries to illuminate, is not all that interesting. Hannibal Rising is a fairly dull and straightforward revenge story, peppered with self-conscious allusions to the trademark characteristics of its protagonist, including his skill with weapons and his penchant for masks.

The audience discovers that family loss had permanently impaired Hannibals psyche, leaving him aloof and cold-blooded. While that childhood trauma could certainly have a lingering effect on a young man, neither Webber nor Harris makes a convincing case for Hannibals too-easy transformation into a flesh-eating, knife-wielding sociopath.

A large part of this problem stems from Ulliels woefully insufficient performance. While filling Hopkins shoes is not an easy assignment–after all, it is his signature role–Ulliel makes a crucial mistake by trying to channel Hopkins take on the character rather than providing us with an original one. Webber slicks backs Ulliels hair and has him lean his chin down while gazing maliciously into the camera, but the performance is merely a weak impersonation of the once-frightening screen figure.

Though this Hannibal is meant to be an impressionable young man, finding his way in the world, Ulliel simply seems too boyish to make us believe he will become the fearsome Hannibal the Cannibal. Watching Ulliel struggle painfully with the role is to be reminded how confidently Hopkins carried himself as Hannibal, nailing the characters pompous enjoyment at knowing that he was smarter than all those around him. By comparison, Ulliels Hannibal is sullen; he has no hint of Hopkins cutting wit or charisma.

As for Webber, he too seems uncomfortable with the material. Girl with a Pearl Earring suggested a director with a visual eye and a gift for understatement. But while Hannibal Rising has a few exquisite shots, it lacks nuance and subtlety. From the beginning, Webber encases the film in a thick sense of dread that soon becomes oppressive.

Following along as Hannibal tortures and kills another of Grutas men until hes slain them all, Webber allows no hint of a laugh to break the monotony of the murders. Clearly, the filmmaker wants to show the tragedy and pointlessness of Hannibals plan, but at the same time, Hannibal Rising doesnt put the audience on Hannibals side so that we understand his reasons, no matter how sickening. This lack of connection differs greatly from our relationship to Hannibal in earlier films–Hannibal may have been pure evil but he was also fascinating and seductive (remember Hopkins's charming, “Good evening, Clarice”).

Webber drags down the other actors into the same joyless marsh. Gong Li (seen last year in “Miami ice,” remains a beautiful onscreen presence, but her budding romance with Hannibal never takes hold because of Ulliels inert turn.

Dominic West hovers in the periphery, looking just as lobotomized as his costars. And Ifans overdoes his villainous role, acting so despicable that he barely resembles a human being.

Without a question, Hannibal Lecter has evolved beyond being just a simple fictional character and is now something of a cinematic icon, a manifestation of civilized-but-unknowable evil. That lack of understanding helped make him a gripping enigma–he seemed relatively normal, until he would explode into murderous fury. Such a towering mystery begs for answers, and undoubtedly the making of Hannibal Rising is meant to finally satisfy some of that curiosity.

Nonetheless, in the process, the filmmakers have done a disservice to their memorable monster by simplifying his motives and removing his complexities, problems that also hamper Harris's book, upon which this movie is based.


Running time: 121 minutes

Director: Peter Webber
Production companies: Dino De Laurentiis Company, Quinta Communications, Ingenious Film Partners
US distribution: MGM, The Weinstein Company
Executive Producers: James Clayton, Duncan Reid
Producers: Dino De Laurentiis, Martha De Laurentiis, Tarak Ben Ammar
Co-Producers: Chris Curling, Philip Robertson, Petr Moravec
Associate Producer: Lorenzo De Maio
Screenplay: Thomas Harris, based on his book
Cinematography: Ben Davis
Editors: Pietro Scalia, Valerio Bonelli
Production design: Allan Starski
Music: Ilan Eshkeri, Shigeru Umebayashi


Hannibal Lecter (Gaspard Ulliel)
Lady Murasaki (Gong Li)
Grutas (Rhys Ifans)
Inspector Popil (Dominic West)
Kolnas (Kevin McKidd)
Young Hannibal (Aaron Thomas)
Mischa (Helena Lia Tachovska)