Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Sorrows of Young Hannibal

Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Rising, which gives us the origin myth of his most famous creation, Hannibal ‘the Cannibal’ Lecter, displays Harris’s flair for concise narration and grand Guignol effects (as well as his weakness for tagging Hannibal’s victims with physically or morally repulsive characters, and his obvious dislike of the human herd), but it never quite lays to rest the feeling that it’s a franchise cash-in. After all, it is no more than an elaboration of a few pages of flashback in its predecessor, Hannibal, and a flashback that itself seemed pretty unnecessary, given that it attempted to explain the motivation of a monster who boasted to Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs, ‘Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can’t reduce me to a set of influences.’

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank You Paul. I hope Gong Li is at least lovely to look at. I am looking forward to seeing this.

January 20, 2007 5:31 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I'm reading the title of the book (or title of the movie) - "Hannibal" - I'm always hoping that it would be movie or story about the first - Carthagenian - Hannibal:) No way.
I'm scared that it would be nearly impossible in the near future to make the movie about the Ancient World with this title.
Now it appears that the second Hannibal was "born in the USSR". Sensational twist of fate:)
By the way, it's obivously - Misha - it is a male name - short form of Mikhail - Michael (And we haven't female form of this name as in France). It couldn't be the name of his sister. Could you imagine the Russian movie about the USA with one of the characters - tragically killed little girl with the name Richard? Why the author of the book and the screenplay couldn't research background of his charecter more carefully and to choose more authentic Lithuanian female name? :)

January 21, 2007 10:40 am  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Is Mischa right? I mistyped it as Misha.

January 21, 2007 5:22 pm  

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