Dir: Peter Webber. US. 2007. 121mins.
Call it audacious, foolhardy or both, but Hannibal Rising, the prequel about Hannibal Lecter's origins dispenses with the stylish suspense of Silence Of The Lambs and Red Dragon/Manhunter and the campiness of Hannibal to portray the cannibalistic serial killer as an avenging angel of 20th-century war crimes.

It's ultra-serious and grimly determined about its premise and at times the screenplay by Thomas Harris - the novelist who created Lecter - is reminiscent of Munich in intent. But it also has more angst and psychological motivation than this character or story can bear.

While Harris' involvement - the story also is the basis for his latest novel - will draw a sizeable audience initially in the US, where it opens on Friday, many will find this more repellent than entertaining. That, along with Anthony Hopkins' absence, should spell a quick fade before it comes close to matching the $93m that 2002's Red Dragon collected domestically.

However, the setting and war-crime gravitas may help this do better with European audiences, including those in Russia. Some may even find its mixture of politics and horror similar to Pan's Labyrinth, if lacking in the latter's surreal special effects and fantasy.

It's doubtful it could top the $116m foreign gross of Red Dragon, however. And Chinese actress Gong Li's strange casting as a Japanese widow in France who falls in love with young nephew (by marriage) Hannibal won't necessarily help in Asian markets.

The story begins in Lecter's home in Lithuania as World War II is ending. Children Hannibal and Mischa are forced to fend for themselves against starving, murderous local peasants who have collaborated with the Nazis. Their parents, who lived in a castle, have died in an explosion. Soon poor Mischa becomes mealtime for the brutal locals, leaving Hannibal deeply stigmatised.

Rescued by the Russians and sent to an orphanage, he escapes as a young man (Gaspard Ulliel) to France, where he slowly is smitten by his aunt, whose family died at Hiroshima and who honours a martial ancestor in her household shrine.

She inspires Hannibal to learn to handle a blade with lethal precision, which he soon tests when a local butcher - a former Nazi collaborator - insults her. Soon enough, he's studying medicine, developing sadistic and cannibalistic tendencies and tracking down those who killed and ate his sister. Conveniently, many also have moved to France.

It is to the credit of director Peter Webber (Girl With A Pearl Earring) that the movie casts enough of a tragic spell and sense of urgency while the plot is unfolding to not seem too phony to watch: he's trying to recreate the Dracula story for a post-Nazi age.

He's also wisely positioned police inspector Popil (Dominic West in an underwritten but interesting role) as the film's conscience because he sympathetically regards Hannibal as a war-crimes-created monster.

Webber especially is helped by cinematographer Ben Davis' spooky color-drained cinematography. And while the film is definitely violent with some horrifying decapitations, eviscerations, strangulations and a forced drowning, it doesn't dwell on the torture or get off on Hannibal's sadism itself.

There's a disembodied, slightly hollow carefulness to Ulliel's English that almost sounds dubbed. That aside, the dark-haired actor's body language is genuinely chilling. He has a slight sexiness, as if he's turned on, to his masochistic smile. And the way he turns his face, inflates his cheeks and snarls like Billy Idol is attention-getting. That said, his performance is so mannered and controlled that one wants to open a window after awhile and let in some life.

Li is alluring and attractive in her seductively colourful bathrobes, but the love interest between her and the younger Ulliel has an incestuous quality that's decidedly unpleasant. And one is forced to impose a reality check on her character's actions - how can she not flee a guy whose idea of a gift is the butcher's head on a platter'

Production designer Allan Starski does an especially nice job of making the ruins of a Lithuanian house look haunted. And costume designer Anna Sheppard's white outerwear for a line of Russian troops advancing in the snow is ghostly and otherworldly.

Production companies/backers
Dino De Laurentiis Company
Quinta Communications
Ingenious Film Partners

US distribution
MGM/The Weinstein Company

International sales
The Weinstein Company

Dino De Laurentiis
Martha De Laurentiis
Tarak Ben Ammar

Executive producers
James Clayton
Duncan Reid

Thomas Harris
from the book by Thomas Harris

Ben Davis

Production design
Allan Starski

Pietro Scalia
Valerio Bonelli

Ilan Eschkeri
Shigeru Umebayashi

Main cast
Gaspard Ulliel
Gong Li
Rhys Ifans
Dominic West
Kevin McKidd
Stephen Walters
Goran Kostic