Through it all, director Peter Webber ( Girl with a Pearl Earring ) seems unaware of the movie he's actually making. His visual style, with its haughty notes of wintry, Eastern European dread, goes unmatched by the blunt, revenge-centered story that fancies itself too sophisticated to provide the baseline pleasures of lip-chewing tension and good, old-fashioned scares.
Our Portrait of the Cannibal as a Young Man begins in the waning months of World War II, where preteen Hannibal (Aaron Thomas), his sister Mischa (Helena Lia Tachovska) and their parents wait out the war in their Lithuanian castle. When Hitler and Stalin's armies battle it out in the family's backyard (a well done sequence), Mom and Dad are killed, while Hannibal and Mischa are taken hostage by snarling Lithuanian thugs (led by Rhys Ifans). Their winter of captivity is long and cold, and Hannibal's captors eventually run out of victuals. Their answer to the food shortage is so abhorrent it becomes the defining moment of Hannibal's life, irrevocably changing him from little boy to nascent sociopath.
After the war, Hannibal returns to the family castle, now a Soviet orphanage. He speaks only during his nightmares, tossing and screaming as he relives his sister's death. Escaping the orphanage, he travels to Paris, where his murderously flamboyant proclivities flower under the gaze, and sometimes direct tutelage, of his aunt, Lady Murasaki (Gong Li). Although the concept of Hannibal having a Japanese benefactor and enabler never feels completely right, it's a high-concept thrill watching one of the world's most beautifully refined and famous actresses teaching one of cinema's greatest villains how to wield a sword and appreciate art and gourmet cuisine.
After entering medical school (his oath presumably “first, do lots of harm”), Hannibal goes on a revenge-fueled killing spree against his sister's murderers. Lucky for him, his tormentors remain in a tight little group, waiting for creative dispatching in beautiful, cobblestone-laden locales, a convenience that a fellow critic dubbed I Spit on Your Grave with better production values. The last third of the film sees Lecter going full-blown psycho, hunting down his wartime enemies (sometimes while brandishing a gun, so inelegant for Lecter) and avoiding capture by Inspector Popil (Dominic West), a poor psychological sparring partner compared to Clarice Starling from 1991's The Silence of the Lambs and 2001's Hannibal.
After the Oscar-winning triumph of Lambs, the Lecter saga fell into instant disrepair with the operatically pitched Hannibal and the negligible Red Dragon. But, no matter how ridiculous the sequels, one always had Anthony Hopkins' devilishly delicious portrayal to keep the eye from wandering. As young Hannibal, Gaspard Ulliel is in an untenable position, having to establish his own place in the Lecter canon, while making us believe he'll grow up to be Anthony Hopkins. But Ulliel, with his triangular face and boomerang smile, can't find room for anything more than wide-eyed, Joker-like satisfaction, as lifelong debts are unmercifully repaid.
The film's ultimate failure is that it permanently taints our enjoyment of Hopkins' interpretation, borne of the unwanted knowledge that Lecter is just another victim of a bad childhood. His acts are matters of protection and revenge, morally justifiable motives taken to morally repugnant extremes. The fun of the character in the previous films was being so intoxicated by someone we knew was pure evil. That's now been taken away, rendering Lecter less a well spoken, oenophilic monster and more a tragic man who sought bloody vengeance for a childhood injustice and became addicted to his form of retribution.
Cast: Gaspard Ulliel, Rhys Ifans, Gong Li, Helena Lia Tachovska and Dominic West
Director: Peter Webber
Screenwriter: Thomas Harris
Producers: Dino De Laurentiis, Martha De Laurentiis and Tarak Ben Ammar
Rating: R for strong grisly violent content and some language/sexual references
Running time: 117 min.
Release date: February 9, 2007