Hannibal Lecter has undergone many a different iteration – from the coolly cerebral Brian Cox to the scarily menacing Anthony Hopkins to the more toothless anti-hero Hopkins played up in the sequels to whatever-the-hell Hannibal Rising was supposed to be. It’s a character that has unfortunately become watered down with each new version presented. It’s remarkable now that a network television channel would base an entire series around a cannibal serial killer – but it speaks to just how defanged the character has become. However the new Hannibal as presented in Bryan Fuller’s upcoming show (based on the first two episodes previewed) presents dare-I-say-it the most unsettling characterization of Hannibal yet. Gone are any of the affectations of an Anthony Hopkins, instead replaced by pure detached malevolence. For the full review, hit the jump.
Mads Mikkelsen (the great Danish actor of the Pusher series and the villain-of-the-week in Casino Royale) injects a blankness to Hannibal that is deeply upsetting. Rarely does the actor contort his face – a smile, hell even a grimace, seem put upon, an alien attempting a parlor trick. He’s so damn creepy in the show – it’s hard to understand how anyone isn’t the least bit perturbed by the guy. Mikkelsen’s cheekbones seem to jut out of his face ready to slice and dice just as the scalpel he keeps nearby. It’s not nearly as ‘fun’ a performance as Anthony Hopkins’ version. Nobodies going to be quoting Mikkelsen (which can also be accredited to the actor’s heavy accent) or dressing up like him for Halloween. Rarely is this Hannibal given a one-liner and the few that are tossed his way in the second episode, Mikkelsen shrugs off and underplays as if it were completely beneath him. It’s definitely the best depiction of sociopathy yet – and the irony that it airs at night on a network TV channel shouldn’t be lost.
However despite the eponymous title Hannibal, the show actually isn’t about Mr. Lecter. Set present day yet still a prequel to all the films – (Hannibal Rising excluded), the show follows Will Graham (previously played by William Peterson in the brilliant Manhunter and by Edward Norton in the less-than-brilliant Red Dragon) as he solves cases on a weekly basis. Will Graham (here played by the excellent Hugh Dancy) is the latest iteration of the ‘brilliant but deeply disturbed’ investigator. See Sherlock, CSI, Elementary and Homeland for further proof of this newfound television staple. Disgraced from the FBI because he didn’t have the nerve to fire off his weapon at the bad guys, Graham wades his time teaching criminal investigation at a university. Of course it isn’t long -i.e. the first commercial break- before his old mentor and head of the FBI (here played by a sleepy Laurence Fishburne) recruits Graham to solve a case ONLY HE CAN SOLVE. It’s a familiar formula and the ol’ shuck n’ jive routine (“Will isn’t ready for a new case.” “But he’s the only one that can solve the case” “Don’t let him get too close.” “But seriously he’s the only one who can solve it.”) grows increasingly tiresome – if not for the exceptional work done by Hugh Dancy.
Dancy, all twitches and babbling eccentricities, actually has the more showy role here. The Graham presented on Hannibal is one-step removed from the loony bin. As his fellow officers are wont to repeat, Graham has an overactive imagination. He’ll often just stand in the middle of a crime scene, literally reliving the murder – albeit (and herein lies the rub) as the killer himself. Filmmaker David Slade (Hard Candy) shoots these ‘imaginations’ with a desaturated yellow tint to them adding an eerie aura of mystery. Are we watching Graham actually solve the crime – alla Sherlock Holmes? Or are we watching the delusional fantasies of a mentally unhinged person? Perhaps a bit of both? The show has a lot of fun walking the tightrope of just how crazy Graham really is and Dancy matches it with each twitch and jitter.
Graham is so unhinged that he is forced to see a psychiatrist to aid these eccentricities and make sure he’s fit to serve in the FBI. Of course the psychiatrist he’s sent to is none other than the most respected in the field: Hannibal Lecter. Tough break. And herein lies the crux of the show – in what is ostensibly a variation of the old ‘deal with the devil’ formula – as Hannibal instead of helping Will of his afflictions, slowly attempts to whittle and shape the hapless detective into his own image: a psychopath.
There’s an element of Greek Tragedy to the show – with the viewers cast as Cassandra. One can’t help but roll their eyes and scream at the TV – Don’t these idiots realize who Hannibal is? Don’t they see how creepy he is? He’s the killer. He eats people. Don’t let him cook for you!
Per the books and previous films – we know how this all ends with Hannibal locked up behind bars and Will Graham the hero, but I’m interested to see just how far Fuller and co are willing to deviate from canon. Recently Bates Motel premiered (and whatever one’s reaction to that show), the most interesting element is creator Carlton Cuse’s declaration that the show will alter from the established history of the Psycho film series. As Hannibal is now, the viewer is already about a dozen or so steps ahead of all the characters – which undermines the inherent drama of the situation. Instead of wondering whether or not Graham will figure out Hannibal is a serial killer, it’s a question of when.
However the show comes to life thanks to its two remarkable leads: Mikkelsen and Dancy. Anytime the two share the screen, the show transcends the inherit predictability of its inevitable conclusion. It’s great to watch the ‘cat and mouse’ interactions between them – especially considering the ‘mouse’ (Graham) in this situation has no idea he’s in the company of a ‘cat’. The rest of the cast doesn’t fare as well though. Fishburne walks through his role as the ‘benevolent authority figure’, occasionally mustering enough enthusiasm to raise his voice an octave or two. Fuller muse and Wonderfalls star Caroline Dhavernas makes little impression in the early-going as a fellow psychiatrist and potential love interest to Will. A subplot involving a morally duplicitous tabloid reporter (Lara Jean Chorostecki) serves little purpose other than to provide Hannibal with a meal at some point.
The talented Bryan Fuller, best known for the brilliant-but-cancelled Wonderfalls, the brilliant-but-cancelled Dead Like Me and the brilliant-but-cancelled Pushing Daisies, adapts his whimsical darkly comical styling to mixed results. At times Hannibal is so serious and portentous that the few moments of Fuller-esque levity feel almost out of place (it should be noted however that the pilot scripted by Fuller himself does a much better job than the subsequent second episode at maintaining a consistent tone.)
In the Hannibal metric rating system, Manhunter and Silence of the Lambs are still the quintessential versions of the character, with Ridley Scott’s underrated Grand Guignol Hannibal a notch below. However the television series is still leaps and bounds better than Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon and the less-said-the-better Hannibal Rising. It’s a more than worthy rendition and reclamation of the popular character. Finally Hannibal Lecter is scary again – and that in and of itself makes the show worthy of your time.
Hannibal premieres Thursday April 4th at 10PM on NBC.