Occasionally visually arresting but often veering toward the risible, 'Hannibal Rising' is an unsatisfying piece that fails to grip the viewer in the manner of some of its illustrious predecessors.
Purporting to be a portrait of the human flesh-eating maniac as a young man, it tells the story of Hannibal Lecter's youth and adolescence in a manner that is perhaps more reflective of the style of Thomas Harris, the novelist behind the Lecter books, than any of the previous films.
As with Harris' novels, there are strong and arresting images and some effective characters. One shot of a line of Russian soldiers in white snow camouflage emerging from a black forest background and happening upon the child Lecter is undeniably haunting and vivid while a shimmering French riverbank scene and an oriental shrine are also depicted with an artist's eye by director Peter Webber ('Girl with a Pearl Earring'). Webber and Harris, a first time scriptwriter on this film, also cleverly manage to visually reference the previous films while Webber must be applauded for achieving an effective representation of Harris' prose style.
The film's opening sequence is also good cinema. Set on the Eastern Front during the final days of World War II, it is pervaded by a tremendous sense of claustrophobia and fear. Driven by hunger, machismo and cowardice, a group of Lithuanian mercenaries eat the flesh of the child Mischa, the sister whose death is supposedly at the root of Lecter's cannibalism, and, despite the distasteful subject matter, the skill of the director and actors must be acknowledged. Rhys Ifans is particularly good as the mercenary leader Vladis Grutas and Aaron Thomas is perfect as the boy Lecter.
As with 'The Silence of the Lambs' and 'Red Dragon', this early part of the film feels worthwhile despite its grim subject. Thereafter, though, 'Hannibal Rising' begins to unravel. Lecter becomes a teenager and Gaspard Ulliel is substituted for Thomas in the role. He is perfectly fine for his first few minutes on screen, silently brooding and menacing his way through an Eastern European industrial school before escaping to Paris.
It is during the scenes where the French Ulliel is expected to speak that the character of Lecter becomes more pantomime villain than fearsome monster. The superb cadence of speech and intensity of Anthony Hopkins' masterful characterisation in 'The Silence of the Lambs' is crucial to Lecter and Ulliel, although he sometimes looks the part, is incapable of reaching anything like the required standard.
Besides Ulliel, it is the inefficiency of the script and the implausibility of the plot that lead to 'Hannibal Rising' being such a chore for the viewer after the first quarter.
It is extremely surprising that Harris, an acknowledged master of suspense writing, so frequently allows for tension to be released. There are one or two individual scenes in which the viewer is forced to hold their breath but these are often followed by meandering sequences in which any sense of rising pressure is allowed to dissipate. It is illustrative to recall how Jonathan Demme, director of 'The Silence of the Lambs' created suspense and terror by classic, Hitchcockian means instead of focussing obsessively on the meaty or gory. Because of this, the one or two scenes in which Demme showed us gruesome or dismembered bodies were incredibly effective.
All too often 'Hannibal Rising' becomes distracted by its own boldness, treating us to what are often tawdry, overblown and poorly acted bloody 'shock' scenes. After a while, this completely desensitises the viewer. It is no accident that the most disturbing death in the film is that of Mischa, Lecter's sister; which is hinted at but does not appear on screen.
In terms of the Lecter pantheon, this is a better film than 'Hannibal' but a far worse one than 'The Silence of the Lambs' or 'Red Dragon'.