It’s really more like Hannibal sinking into the depths of depravity, but that’s not as good a title.
Our story begins in 1941, in Lithuania, of all places. No, Hannibal isn’t a Lithuanian name, nor is Lecter, but there we are. The character is now Lithuanian, so get over it. The point is that Lithuania isn’t a good place to be in 1941, as the Russian troops are retreating through the country, chased by Nazis, and the Lecter family must flee their castle and take refuge in a hunting lodge in the woods. Refuge doesn’t last long, though — a Russian tank stops there for water, a German plane attacks it, and all the Lecter adults are killed, leaving young Hannibal and his little sister Mischa (also not a Lithuanian name) as the only survivors.
Then a group of disgruntled locals arrives, would-be SS officers who are looking for shelter. Unfortunately, there isn’t much food, and it isn’t long before hunger drives them to look for…unusual sources of nourishment. All right, yes, they decide to eat Mischa. The movie avoids saying it in so many words for quite some time, but we all know what’s going on. (“He ate my sister” is kind of an awkward line to say anyway.) And yes, it’s terrible, though sadly probably not too uncommon in that time and place. It still seems like an odd plot point to me, though — I would think that having had a close relative eaten would be much more likely to turn a person into a vegetarian than into a cannibal, but maybe that’s just me.
We next see Hannibal (now played by Gaspard Ulliel) back in the family home — as just another one of the orphans being “cared for” there by the Russian overlords. Communism apparently makes them lazy, however, as Hannibal one night discovers a packet of letters his mother left behind eight years earlier, just sitting in a drawer. After escaping the orphanage, he uses the letters to find his uncle’s home in France. Hannibal’s bad luck holds, though: his uncle is dead. (Yeah, yeah, we get it, filmmakers — his life sucked.) Things turn around when he discovers that his very young-looking, beautiful aunt (Gong Li, from Farewell My Concubine, who’s actually 41, according to imdb.com) is still alive. She takes him in, and they quickly develop a close but seriously disturbing relationship.
|“I never drink… wine.”|
At this point, things were still interesting. It was still more a character-study sort of film, making some effort to get the viewer to understand Hannibal, if not actually sympathize with him. (I mean, he was a child being terrorized during a horrible war. How could you not root for him?) But somewhere along the way, it turned into a standard revenge movie, and I started losing interest. They also tried much too hard to pay homage to the other films and books — Hannibal’s targets have all gone on to peddle flesh in one way or another, from taxidermy all the way to white slavery, and the bit with the mask is just silly.
His aunt teaches him some swordplay, though she must have skipped mentioning anything about a samurai code of honor. He kills his first victim (the poor guy brought a knife to a swordfight) for her sake, and she helps shield him from Inspector Popil (Dominic West, from The Forgotten), who’s on his trail. Strangely, the inspector doesn’t really try too hard to catch him, and seems to trust him to a scary extent. I guess that’s just what happens when the police officer isn’t the hero.
It might have been a better film without the mythos of Hannibal Lecter hanging over it. Gaspard does do a good job of playing a psychopath, but there are things about the character that don’t quite mesh with the adult Hannibal. He tells his aunt, apparently sincerely, that he loves her, and his tortures are only reserved for the bad guys. He’s wracked with guilt over the fate of his sister, and while this helps explain his madness, I think I liked it better when we didn’t quite know why Hannibal was the way he was. He’s much spookier that way.
This one gets two and a quarter idols. It isn’t completely terrible, but I had much higher hopes for it, and much more could have been done with it. Larger moral issues are touched upon (there’s a scene where a convicted Vichy collaborator asks the inspector where the police were during the Nazi atrocities, for instance), but never expanded upon, and that was a serious missed opportunity as far as I’m concerned. And it’s hard to pull off a film where the hero is also the villain — once you lose sympathy for Hannibal, and it’s likely that you will, the movie just slides downhill. You also shouldn’t expect to want to eat any beef roasts for a while after watching this.