If Thomas Harris' recently published prequel to his tapped-out saga of serial cannibal killer Hannibal Lecter — a trio of books that began with the masterful Red Dragon and culminated in the ridiculous Hannibal — felt more like a rushed movie tie-in than a novel in its own right, the same can't be said for the movie itself: It's a handsomely mounted but poky thriller undone by a fatally miscast lead.
Kaunas, Lithuania, 1944: As Soviet tanks edge ever closer to the Lecter family's Nazi-occupied estate, 8-year-old Hannibal (Aaron Thomas) and his younger sister, Mischa (Helena Lia Tachovska), are suddenly orphaned by a surprise Stuka attack. The children are left to fend for themselves in a hunting lodge hidden deep within the surrounding forest, until they fall into the clutches of a marauding band of looters led by the brutal Grutas (Rhys Ifans). Faced with imminent starvation, the thugs hit upon a plan straight out of Hansel and Gretel: They murder, cook and devour little Mischa. Eight years later, a traumatized Hannibal is once again living in his family's chateau, now being used by the Soviets as a state orphanage. Tormented by nightmares about his sister's awful fate while facing down bullies with a disturbing viciousness, Hannibal uncovers a pack of his mother's letters and, following the return address on an envelope, escapes to the West to seek out his uncle. Hannibal finally arrives at the lavish Chateau Vigo only to learn that his uncle died one year earlier. But he's taken in by his uncle's beautiful widow, Lady Murasaki (Gong Li), a Japanese noblewoman who teaches Hannibal the grisly traditions of her samurai ancestors. When Lady Murasaki is insulted by a butcher (Charles Maquignon) at a local market, Hannibal uses his newly learned skills with a samurai sword to murder and mutilate his first victim. The circumstances surrounding the crime arouse the suspicions of Inspector Popil (Dominic West), a local police officer who's also tracking down Vichy war criminals. But Lady Murasaki, aware of Hannibal's guilt, provides her nephew with an alibi and frees him to kill again. And kill again he does: Now a medical student, Hannibal doses himself with enough sodium thiopental to recall all the repressed details of his sister's death, then travels back to Kaunas to wreak his terrible — and suitably grisly — revenge on her killers.
Much of what makes Hannibal Lecter so frightening is the unfathomable gulf between the hypercivilized exterior and the ferocious, bloodthirsty beast beneath the refined mask of sanity. To explain his diseased mind is to rob the character of its mystery, and rooting his monstrousness in the far greater evil of Nazi war crimes only makes relative what should simply strike us dumb with horror. But the bigger problem is a weak central performance by Gaspard Ulliel, a French actor with a limited control of English cadence. Snarl and glower as he might, he lacks the charisma that made Anthony Hopkins' and Brian Cox's prior incarnations of the character so hypnotically compelling, and ultimately so dangerous.
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