A killer career is launched in "Hannibal Rising," which explains how the character became the cunning cannibal of later repute. This upmarket slasher is a well-produced but slow-moving thriller that never quite roars to life.

A killer career is launched in “Hannibal Rising,” which explains how the character most famously played by Anthony Hopkins became the cunning cannibal of later repute. With first-time scenarist Thomas Harris adapting his own novel, and “Girl With a Pearl Earring’s” Peter Webber the somewhat unlikely directorial choice, this upmarket slasher is a well-produced but slow-moving thriller that never quite roars to life. Biz in most territories should be at least initially robust, though brand recognition will probably carry pic into midrange numbers of “Red Dragon” as opposed to the B.O. bonanzas of superior “Silence of the Lambs” and “Hannibal.”

The novel, published just two months ago, was derided by many as a quickie screenplay cash-in beneath the author’s usual standards. There were also complaints that in providing a victim-scenario background to account for Hannibal Lecter’s mayhem, Harris had replaced his mystery with pop-psych banality.

Latter may remain a problem for those who view Lecter as some sort of sacred screen text (bloggers, start your engines), but on its own terms this story works better on celluloid than it did on the page. Nonetheless, “Rising” emerges as a bit of a wet fuse, never especially involving or suspenseful.

In 1944 Lithuania, the aristocratic Lecter clan abandon their castle to Nazi invaders, but their hunting-lodge refuge gets caught in the crossfire between Allies and Axis. Everyone is killed save young Hannibal (Aaron Thomas) and sister Mischa (Helena-Lia Tachovska), who’s little more than a toddler.

Their lot grows yea worse when local hooligans led by Grutas (Rhys Ifans) show up. They can’t leave for fear of being shot as looters; it’s winter, and game and food are scarce. “We eat or die,” Grutas snarls, pinching Mischa’s plump cheeks very much like the witch did Gretel’s.

Eight years later, now-teenaged Hannibal (Gaspard Ulliel, “A Very Long Engagement”) is back at the castle — albeit as a ward of the state, his ancestral home now a Soviet orphanage. He refuses to speak, but makes his violent temper felt in other ways. After making sure a mean senior boy gets a nasty comeuppance, he runs away, heading west.

At last he arrives in rural France, where his uncle’s Japanese widow, Lady Murasaki (Gong Li), takes him in. Her kindness gets him to speak again, and her convenient supply of inherited samurai swords provides one form of training for future tasks. Others are supplied by a chef’s gastronomical advice, and by the intimate knowledge of other fleshy substances Hannibal acquires as a medical student.

After dispatching a loutish butcher (Charles Maquignon) who’d insulted Lady Murasaki, Hannibal moves with her to Paris and begins his real course of study: tracking down the men who “ate my sister.” This first requires a trip back to Lithuania, where he discovers most of the culprits are now handily located back in France.

The trail of severed heads (another samurai tip) that begins to pile up attracts Inspector Popil (Dominic West), a war-crimes investigator aware that these new victims were themselves thieves, murderers and Nazi collaborators. Hannibal’s quarry also become aware of his intentions, taking preventative measures that eventually include kidnapping Lady Murasaki. But Hannibal is always one gory step ahead of them.

Halfway through, pic turns into the expected series of grotesque revenge killings, yet it still lacks emotional urgency and real scares — partly because the script is so patly set up to justify whatever havoc our protag wreaks. Also, Lady Murasaki and Inspector Popil make weak foils, cottoning on to Hannibal’s plans early on but only kinda-sorta trying to stop him.

Former is an especially thankless part that Gong can’t dimensionalize beyond looking weepy and lovely. Ifans gives good slimebag. And while Ulliel will no doubt peeve those looking for a junior Hopkins act-alike, he does bring intelligence and poise to a role that strays too little from one menacing, supercilious note.

Pic must be counted the least successful of the Lecter pics to date, as each prior film (even so-so “Red Dragon”) had a more distinctive, assertive tone: “Manhunter’s” eeriness, “Silence’s” taut psychodrama, “Hannibal’s” macabre Grand Guignol. Webber’s perhaps too-steady hand manages to tamp down the potential silliness in a script that’s never quite convincing and sports some clunky dialogue.

Production package is quite handsome, with a muted elegance to Ben Davis’ lensing, Allan Starski’s production design and Anna Sheppard’s costumes. Tech aspects are all first-rate.

Hannibal Rising

France-U.K.-U.S.

Production

An MGM and the Weinstein Co. release of a Dino De Laurentiis production in association with Quinta Communications and Ingenious Film Partners. Produced by Dino De Laurentiis, Martha De Laurentiis, Tarak Ben Ammar. Executive producers, James Clayton, Duncan Reid. Co-producers, Chris Curling, Philip Roberton, Petr Moravec. Directed by Peter Webber. Screenplay, Thomas Harris, based on his book.

Crew

Camera (color), Ben Davis; editors, Pietro Scalia, Valerio Bonelli; music, Ilan Eshkeri, Shigeru Umebay Ashi; production designer, Allan Starski; art director, Nenad Pecur; set decorator, Judy Farr; costume designer, Anna Sheppard; sound (Dolby Digital), Oliver Tarney, Eddy Joseph; assistant director, Martin Sebik; casting, Leo Davis. Reviewed at AMC Metreon, San Francisco, Feb. 7, 2007. MPAA rating: R. Running time: 121 MIN.

Cast

Hannibal Lecter - Gaspard Ulliel Lady Murasaki - Gong Li Grutas - Rhys Ifans Kolnas - Kevin McKidd Inspector Popil - Dominic West Dortlich - Richard Brake Milko - Stephen Walters Grentz - Ivan Marevich
With: Goran Kostic, Charles Maquignon, Richard Leaf, Ingeborda Dapkunaite, Aaron Thomas, Helena-Lia Tachovska.
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