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Peter Webber's "Hannibal Rising" Is a Decent Piece of Work

Don't blame the cast and crew and director: they did a good job.

Critics are falling all over each other in their eagerness to condemn the film—but what they're really condemning is author Thomas Harris' prequel.
"Hannibal Rising" isn't a terrible movie, just a pointless one. Peter Webber's film is a decent piece of work, though it's not one I'd want to watch again tomorrow. The fault in this project goes back to Lector as a franchise that Thomas Harris, who created it, has allowed to overrun itself. It's he who could have left well enough alone. But he had to write a prequel, and then he had the temerity to write a screenplay from his book, which he'd never done before. A prequel is always the last gasp of such a series. The critics are falling all over each other in their eagerness to condemn the film—but what they're really condemning is Harris' prequel. The idea that some childhood trauma would somehow enrich our understanding of villainy goes against the nature of real villainy. We don't want to forgive Hannibal Lector or understand him; we want to be horrified and afraid. Better he should have no childhood—or a placid, happy one.

"Hannibal Rising" is a pointless movie, but that shouldn't make us overlook the fact that it's also in many ways a beautiful and well-made one with a good cast (including the famous-in-Britain Rhys Ifans), and Gaspard Ulliel is astonishingly elegant and invincible as the young Lector. Having never acted before in English, Gaspard (who's French) manages to chew up his lines with as much deep-throated Mittel-European relish as if they were baby cheeks braised with mushrooms, and his ominous cheek scar and savage facial lines were not poorly chosen. This role does not disgrace him, though it's already seeming he's moving away from subtle dramas like "The Last Day" toward flashy epics like "Jacquou the Peasant" as his career takes off maybe a bit too fast.

Peter Webber directed the beautiful and atmospheric film about Vermeer, "Girl with Pearl Earring," and after the gritty and overbearing war scenes o f "Hannibal"'s prequel-to-the-prequel there are many lovely visuals ornamented by flash explosions, darkly glowing interiors, and the face of Gong Li among gleaming samurai swords. Lady Murasaki Shikibu she's called, a very odd name for a Chinese lady, and redundant to boot, since "Shikibu" means "lady" in classical Japanese. It's also the name not of a modern woman but an ancient author first translated into English by Arthur Waley. When I first heard it in the dialogue from the mouth of one of the villains—that is, the men who wronged Hannibal and his little sister in their childhood, and must be avenged—I thought it was a learned joke. Alas, not so; but again it's the author who's at fault, not the cast and crew.

As with all work designed to satisfy the taste of cultists, this will delight some and enrage others. One critic has even damned Ulliel for not being as "chinless" as Anthony Hopkins. Well. The recent novel this is based on is as guilty of creating a fantastic, far-fetched youth for this now-famous villain that we never heard of before, because there was no basis for it. Harris' "Hannibal Rising" wasn't a young Anthony Hopkins. There is no young Anthony Hopkins. After all, Demme's "Silence of the Lambs" is a brilliant effort even if it signaled the end of Demme as an original filmmaker. This will only blur that memory. Did I say I didn't want to watch this tomorrow? Make that the day after tomorrow, and the day after that. But I will forgive all who worked on this film—except Thomas Harris—and go to see their future work.

Chris Knipp, of San Francisco, writes about movies, politics and art on his blogsite.

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This story was published on February 12, 2007.