Every schlock horror-maker knows to keep the monster hidden for as long as possible. At best, exposure diminishes its power to disturb; it also risks rendering it banal, even ridiculous. This applies to backstory and motivation as much as physical appearance: show us Hannibal Lecter caged in a cell yet unaccountably incisive, sadistic and amused, and we get a frisson; show him clutching his mother’s body, tearful eyes turned to the heavens as he wails ‘Mama!’, and you court sniggering. In tracing the good doctor’s formative years, ‘Hannibal Rising’ labours to dissect this avatar of gleeful malice. It proves a blunt little tool.
Following the aristocratic Lecter family’s wartime flight from their Lithuanian keep, our pre-teen hero and his little sister undergo a traumatic culinary encounter with a gang of feral Eastern front irregulars (led by Rhys Ifans, eyes a-rolling). An elaborate revenge scheme against these brutes hatched by the adolescent Hannibal in ’50s France is facilitated by his tutelage in things decorous by a poised Japanese noble (Gong Li), saltily offset by an internship at an autopsy lab.
A courteous snob as well as a psycho, Lecter has always been somewhat campy and Gaspard Ulliel – channelling the stiff-kneed walk and unblinking gaze of Anthony Hopkins’ performance – brings an apt insouciance to the lead. But the more Thomas Harris milks his character (here, for the first time, he wrote the screenplay as well as the source novel) the sillier the results get. ‘Hannibal’ proffered trained killer pigs and fresh brain-shavings; now, see the teenage killer idly strum a lute while awaiting a victim or smear mayonnaise on a rope to ensure a nicely lubricated decapitation! The clumsily episodic plot and ill-defined supporting characters offer little of substance to offset such baroque flourishes. Lecter is all relish, which is fine for a side dish but unsatisfying in a main.