My first Hannibal Lecter was Brian Cox in Manhunter . As dazzling as Anthony Hopkins was, that’s still my favorite Hannibal portrayal. Like Hopkins, Cox showed us Lecter’s mesmerizing stillness and unnervingly penetrating mind. In both Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs, what made Hannibal-the-Cannibal so intriguing was that he was not center stage. In both, he was assisting law enforcement officials in tracking down other serial killers. In exchange for his insights and clues, he got the pleasure of probing their minds, getting the same kind of pleasure a cat gets from playing with a mouse before having it for dinner.
But it was less interesting when he took center stage in Hannibal. When he was alongside the central story we were kept remote, limited to glimpses of his combination of intellectual ferocity and appetite for exquisitely calibrated murders. What fascinates is the juxtaposition of his near-omniscience (“you use Evian skin cream, and sometimes you wear L’Air du Temps, but not today”) with his coolness as he destroys (“his pulse never got above 85, even when he ate her tongue”). Giving us so little information allows us to project onto him the boogiemen deep in our subconscious, and that is what makes him so scary. But this time, as we get a chance to see him as a child and a young man, our curiosity may be satisfied, but the additional detail that humanizes him makes him far less interesting.
We first see Lecter as a child, playing with his little sister Mischa near the family castle in Lithuania. They are soon hurried away by their loving parents to a cottage in the woods. The Nazis are approaching. But Hannibal’s family is killed by a brutal group of Lithuanian collaborators led by Vladis Grutas (Rhys Ifans). After the way, Lecter (now played by French actor Gaspard Ulliel) finds himself at a Communist-run school located in what had once been his home.
As they say on report cards, he does not work well with others. Criticized for “not honoring the human pecking order,” he extracts revenge from his chief tormenter and runs away to France to find his last relative. She is the Japanese widow of his late uncle, Lady Murasaki Shikibu. And she is played by Chinese actress Gong Li, showing off two of her most famous features, the ability to make tears well up in her eyes several different ways, all both beautiful and compelling, and that quality which, since her part of the story is set in France, we can refer to as her belle poitrine.
Lady Murasaki provides some sympathy — and some martial arts training and he goes to medical school, with a work-study job preparing bodies for autopsy, all of which will come in handy as he decides to track down the people who killed his family. Meanwhile, a French cop (Dominic West) is getting suspicious.
So, what we have is less the deliciously shivery “fava beans and a nice chianti” than a brutal, but understandable and even sympathetic quest for vengeance. Lecter’s otherness is lessened; he almost seems ordinary. What comes next is all pretty standard — track them down one at a time and kill them in very unpleasant ways, tossing in a couple of visual references to the earlier (when they were made)/later (when they take place) works, generally more striking than relevant.
By the time we get to one last revelation, the one that is supposed to kick-start Lecter from revenge killing into psychotic killing, well, the thrill is gone. Having Lecter scarred by someone who is as completely over-the-top loathsome as Grutas creates a dilemma. Does he become the new monster? Is the next sequel/prequel going to give us his backstory? As serial killer movies go, this one is all right. As Hannibal Lecter movies go, it’s a long way from whatever is in second-to-last place.
Parents should know that this this movie features extreme and graphic peril and violence, including grisly images, torture, and cannibalism. It includes WWII battle violence (guns, tanks, a plane) and war crimes, including Nazi execution of a Jew and a Gypsy and the butchery of a child. Characters use some strong and crude language. There are some crude sexual references, including prostitution. There are racist references and we see Nazis order the execution of a Jew and a Gypsy.
Families who see this movie should talk about the way people respond to the dire situations of war. They may want to learn about war crimes tribunals like those at Nuremberg and the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. What crimes are and are not being addressed by our global legal systems today?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the other Hannibal Lecter movies, especially Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs. They will also enjoy the classic serial killer film, No Way to Treat a Lady. If families want to learn more about resistance and complicity with the Nazi occupation during WWII, they should see Partisans of Vilna and The Sorrow and the Pity.