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Hannibal Rising

The Silence Of The Lambs succeeded for a variety of reasons: stellar performances, memorable direction, and so forth. But on a sheer structural level, it worked for a reason its mercenary sequel Hannibal and the new prequel Hannibal Rising don't: It had characters the audience could actually care about. Silence made its central figure, serial-killing cannibal Hannibal Lecter, into a necessary evil, contained and channeled as a force for good, but only barely. And his position on the knife's edge between the real hero and the real villain was much of what made him fascinating. In Hannibal and Hannibal Rising, on the other hand, he's just another villain on a long list of them. He's still taking down people who deserve what they get, but he's so inhuman himself that there's no point in rooting for anyone involved.

Hannibal Rising drops back in time, looking for a point when Hannibal was still a character with nuance. As a child in World War II, he sees his family slaughtered and loses his cherished baby sister. As a teenager, played as a smirking Joker figure by French actor Gaspard Ulliel (A Very Long Engagement), he's taken in by his uncle's Japanese widow, Gong Li, and he sets about evening the score via a series of grotesque murders. Silence/Hannibal author Thomas Harris scripted the film, ditching much of the detail from the first half of his book version; the novel was sometimes bare-bones, but the film is just marrow and blood, as it zips past all the early character development in unseemly haste to get to the killings.

But the audience has no stake in the proceedings. Hannibal's victims are barely established meat-puppets, and there's no gratification in their deaths. Hannibal is a victim of his past, but most of that past has been freshly excised from the story. The book at least showed the development that made him what he is in Silence, but the film has him going from child to irredeemable sociopath in the blink of an eye, and there's never any indication that he was or could be more. The obvious sympathy focus might be Li, except that she's barely present, even when she's onscreen; she's usually radiant and intense, but here, she seems to be dozing, as disengaged with her dilemmas as the audience should be. Director Peter Webber makes the proceedings reasonably pretty, though nowhere near as luminous as his last effort, Girl With A Pearl Earring. But he can't do much about what's missing from the story: a soul or a sense of purpose. They're welcome to all kill each other so God can sort it out. But why would anyone want to watch?

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