The Sorrows of Young Hannibal
The movie version of the novel shares this problem of redundancy, but like the novel it’s by no means as bad as it could have been. Apart from some necessary elisions and compressions, it sticks fairly close to the novel - not much of a surprise, given that Harris wrote the screenplay. In 1944, Hannibal Lecter’s family hide in the summer lodge when the Russian advance sweeps through their Lithuanian estate. His mother and father and their servants are killed in a firefight between a Russian tank and a Nazi Stuka; then a band of ragged looters take over the lodge and kill and eat his little sister, Mischa. Hannibal escapes, and after eight years flees a Soviet orphanage, and makes his way across Europe to France and his only surviving relative, the Japanese widow of his uncle. Plagued by nightmare flashbacks, he exacts a horrible revenge on a butcher who insults his aunt, and becomes a medical student and hones the skills he requires to track down the war criminals who murdered his sister.
It’s a handsomely staged period movie, with good direction by Peter Webber (who previously helmed Girl With A Pearl Earring), and despite a variety of Mittle-European accents the actors acquit themselves well. Gong Li brings a watchful stillness and quiet resolve to the part of Lady Murasaki, Hannibal’s aunt (although one wonders why a Japanese actress wasn’t given the role); Rhys Ifans plays Gaspar, the leader of the war criminals, with eye-rolling relish; and Gaspard Ulliel is a striking and devilishly gleeful young Hannibal. What the movie lacks, as does the novel, is a suitable antagonist for Hannibal to measure himself against. In The Silence of the Lambs he played cat-and-mouse games with Clarice Starling and in Hannibal he was chased not only by Starling but also by a venial Italian police inspector and his only surviving victim. In Hannibal Rising, Lady Murasaki does little more than fret over Hannibal’s monstrous descent, the French detective who investigates his trail of murders, Inspector Popil (played by The Wire’s Dominic West), is an incidental nuisance issuing impotent warnings, and until the final reel Gaspar is mostly offstage.
All that’s left is a series of increasingly gruesome set-piece variations on the theme of decapitation as Hannibal slashes through the ranks of the war criminals until he reaches their leader. There’s some small tension when Gaspar kidnaps Lady Murasaka, but it’s too little, too late. And although the movie tries to make something of the possibility that Hannibal can make a Faustian choice between good and evil, there’s little to be wrung from it because we already know what Hannibal will choose, and in any case Inspector Popil, echoing Red Dragon’s Will Graham, tells us that the human part of Hannibal died in the forest during World War Two, giving birth to the monster. And despite Ulliel’s hypnotic performance, it’s hard to muster sympathy for Hannibal’s devil, which makes his revenge all the more unpalatable.