Hannibal - The Series

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“Before we begin, I must warn you: nothing here is vegetarian.”

by Casimir Harlow Sep 26, 2013 at 11:31 AM

  • Movies review


    Hannibal - The Series


    It’s time to get the scent back...

    Whilst I always enjoyed the great Anthony Hopkins's now-iconic portrayal of Thomas Harris's legendary cannibal super-serial killer, Hannibal (Lecter, Lecktor or even Lector depending which source you use) - made famous across a trio of somewhat hit-and-miss thrillers: the superior'Lambs, where he was somewhat pantomime; the flashy Ridley Scott sequel, where his character was more refined, but the story was not; and the wholly unnecessary prequel/remake Red Dragon, where it was only his popularity in the role that saw the character's part in the story aggrandised - my favourite Harris/Hannibal adaptation is easily Michael Mann's underrated 80s thriller Manhunter(the film that was remade as Red Dragon) which I reviewed comprehensively here.
    Central to its superiority was not only a far more believable super-serial killer performance from Brian Cox, but also its focus on the lead character, retired FBI special investigator Will Graham, expertly played by the equally under-appreciated William Petersen (who would use it as the groundwork for his latter, more popular as CSImainstay Gil Grissom). Graham was an excellent detective - a super-detective of sorts, since he faced off against Hannibal - but his ability to get inside the minds of his targets, to feel pure empathy for serial killers, left him inwardly battle-damaged, dancing ever closer towards becoming the very thing he has to imagine himself as on a daily basis.


    Hannibal Origins
    Hannibal, the TV series, takes things back a few years, to look at the events before Manhunter (or, technically,Red Dragon, as that was the original source novel name), and see what brought Will Graham and Hannibal together in the first place, vastly extending the scope of their working relationship - far beyond what Harris had originally envisioned - in order to enable them to both investigate a number of crimes together, and become colleagues and possibly even friends.

    Graham has reluctantly been drawn back into the field by FBI Agent Jack Crawford, who believes that only his particular type of crazy can get the job done. But he's not without flaws: he's socially inept; his unparalleled capacity for empathy often sees him deeply affected by the very crimes he investigates; and the bodies of both the victims he discovers and the killers he catches haunt his fever-sweat nightmares. Graham's colleague and co-profiler Dr Alana Bloom believes that he is dancing dangerously close to the edge, but Crawford is determined to use him - he knows that it is the only way that they are going to be able to catch these monsters. Bloom and Crawford agree on one thing though: they think Graham needs someone to talk through the darkness with; a partner-in-dark-crime, a confidante, and so they agree to use renowned psychiatrist Dr Hannibal Lecter.

    After clinically breaking through Graham's elaborate defences, Lecter establishes himself as a valuable sounding board and even something of a friend - of which Graham has precious few - but both Graham and Crawford's entire team are blissfully unaware of the fact that Hannibal is actually a violent psychopath himself, often the man behind the very crimes that they are investigating and, even when he is not, all too eager to prove himself more intelligent than those killers and thus, at the same time, cleverer than Crawford & co because they can't catch him.

    “You catch these killers by getting into their heads, but you also allow them into your own.”

    Bryan 'Heroes' Fuller's Hannibal series far exceeds any expectations placed on a TV show spin-off from the franchise. After all, the young Hannibal prequel movie was terrible and, with Manhunter being such a veritable classic, and Hopkins's portrayal so indelibly etched into the minds of audiences, making a viable procedural series seemed not only an unenviable task, but a veritably impossible one.

    Fuller's plan is ambitious: reimagining the Harris tales across seven seasons, with the middle three dedicated to Red Dragon / Manhunter, Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal, and the two seasons at either end showing Hannibal's past and future, respectively. Rather than just cover previously trodden territory, however, the show instead greatly expands upon the history sketched by Harris's books, using them as a genetic structure from which it cultivates a very new but also very familiar beast.

    Remember Hannibal mentioning Garret Jacob Hobbs in Red Dragon /Manhunter? Well now we get to see Graham's entire investigation into Hobbs in all its devastating, bloody glory. Remember the murders committed by the infamous Chesapeake Ripper noted in the Red Dragon book? Well here we look at the various different copycats who cloud the hunt for the true murderer, whose identity is easy to spot for all but those involved in the actual investigation.

    “Here we are; a bunch of psychopaths helping each other out.”


    Across the episodes are numerous direct references to the books and films - dozens of direct quotes - and, in this way, the producers expertly pay tribute to the source material, as well as offering fan service to those familiar with the original works, whilst also delivering fresh tales of interest to fans old and new. The investigations themselves are also wonderfully, beautifully and brutally realised. Whether they are concluded across one, two, or more episodes, the multiple parallel arcs run simultaneously through the 13 episodes, seldom offering any lasting conclusion, and instead blending into one another as if part of one grand masterwork of art; mere pieces in the design of a huge, intricate puzzle.

    Key to making these arcs compelling is not just the accuracy of the violent crimes (which are unflinchingly explicit) and of the underlying psycho-analysis and criminal profiling, but actually the very strength of the main performances. These are characters that need to be painted such that we want to know them, but also in a way that allows them to defy comparison with the preceding actors who have played them, whilst - at the same time - honouring the previous, invested performances. Somehow, impossibly, they actually pulled all of that off and the trio of lead actors who play Crawford, Graham and, arguably most difficulty, Hannibal himself, grab these famous characters and both make them their own, whilst also painting them as warmly familiar throughout. These are definitely the same characters we've known and loved over the past three decades, only nobody could have ever expected to get to know them this well.

    Taken in the order that their bloody face-masks appear over the cleverly succinct title sequence, Lawrence Fishburne steps up to the plate to bring Special Agent In Charge Jack Crawford to life. A significant part of both the Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs novels (as well as, briefly, Hannibal), the character has been played by no less than three actors on the Big Screen, the most effective of which was probably Dennis Farina in Manhunter(Scott Glenn was good but more distant in'Lambs, and the ever-underrated Harvey Keitel was utterly wasted in the Red Dragon remake.


    “Promise me something, Jack, don’t let him get too close.”

    Despite the fact that the character has never been portrayed as an integral part of the stories, this new interpretation changes all of that, pitching Crawford front and centre, almost as much as Lecter and Graham. This is undoubtedly partly due to the casting of Fishburne - the biggest name on the list. Fishburne enjoyed early career fame inApocalypse Now, and made a name for himself with both power and presence in the likes of King of New York and, of course, the seminalBoyz N The Hood, but it's his iconic role as Morpheus in theMatrix trilogy that brought him his biggest fame and glory. Recently, however, he hasn't quite had the same results - he was drafted in to CSI to replace William Petersen (by coincidence, the man who first played Will Graham, in Manhunter) but, more through a mistake in the design of his character than a fault with his acting (they made him a rookie CSI which just didn't fit), he was soon written out and replaced by Ted Danson.
    Anybody worried this would be repeated here should relax, Fishburne's Crawford is a very different animal, and a quality role for him to get his teeth into. Tough, commanding and even a little volatile (like his old school self then), Crawford is far from a nice guy, and its well amidst a cast rife with a variety of different psychopaths - he's cold and ruthless; he knows exactly what he asks of Graham, he knows the cost upon the man's mental state, and yet he will do whatever it takes to catch these killers. It's not even the first time that he's sacrificed a team member either - the series drawing in a flashback to events that wonderfully play tribute to a very familiar scenario from theRed Dragon story, only with different players here (reminding us that the inevitable confrontation between Graham and Lecter - however far down the line it is - will not come quite as expected).


    Hannibal Graham
    Even though Lecter is clearly the hardest to cast, it's actually the casting of Graham - the next up to appear in the show's title sequence - that worried me the most. For me, William Petersen was and will always be Will Graham; hell, he was so involved in the role that he basically made a ten-year career out of an expansion of that very character inCSI. Thankfully, though, Hugh Dancy pulls it off. He's not better than Petersen, but, through developing the key character traits, mannerisms and affectations (far more prominent in Manhunter than the generally reliable Edward Norton presented in the pointless remake), he manages to both honour Petersen's portrayal, whilst expanding on the role. You would be forgiven for wondering who Dancy is - a little-known Brit actor with bit parts across a flurry of TV shows and movies - but he does have experience with playing affected individuals (Graham labels himself as being 'closer to Aspergers’ and autistics than narcissists and sociopaths') as he spent a great deal of time researching the subject for a previous film he did called Adam.

    “It isn't very smart to piss off a guy who thinks about killing people for a living.”

    Dancy gets truly swept up in the role - visibly increasingly disturbed over the course of the first season - and definitely becomes one with the character. We get a great deal more insight into what makes Graham tick, and the background here helps us understand better why the man eventually landed in a mental hospital himself (before the events of Red Dragon / Manhunter). To convince to Graham's 'gift' of pure empathy, and help us to understand why his thoughts are so horrible, the show goes into detail visually depicting his thought-process. This had been done quite effectively in Manhunter, but the technique here is also very stylish, wiping the screen in waves as Graham - mentally - reverses his way through the events that led up to the crime scene before him, step by step, before placing himself in the very minds of the killers and re-enacting the murder. It can be quite disturbing - particularly visually seeing Graham ‘commit’ the crimes (something which becomes all the more important towards the end of the season) - and it helps get you in the right mindset, however dark that might be.

    They beautifully marry up the characters of Graham and Lecter too, forever regarded as flip-sides to the same coin, but finally here shown to be such. Graham's pure empathy giving him the exact same thoughts as the coldly psychopathic Hannibal; a horrific irony - the light that burns so bright in Graham should see him at the opposite end of the spectrum to his opponent but, instead, it merely lights the same gruesome darkness that Hannibal lives in; and if they see the same things for long enough, they will become as one.


    Hannibal Hannibal
    Many would wonder who could possibly follow on in Hopkins' footsteps for the role of Hannibal, but, for me, Hopkins was neither the first nor the greatest Hannibal - actually Manhunter's Brian Cox held that mantle long before. The key to his superiority was the depiction of Hannibal in a very clinically plausible fashion, far less about grand theatrics and pantomime villainy, Cox showed how staggeringly intelligent, cunning and dangerous Hannibal was just by having him make an illicit telephone call: "operator, I don't seem to have the use of my arms, would you be so kind as to dial a number for me" (thirty seconds later he had Graham's home address!).

    “I really must introduce you to a finer aftershave. That smells like something with a ship on the bottle.”
    To this end Mads Mikkelsen is outstanding in his brains-over-bravado portrayal of Hannibal. The excellent, highly underrated actor (go and seeThe Hunt immediately if you need evidence of this beyond his more famousCasino Royale villain) wanted to show Hannibal to be 'as close to Satan as you could humanly get' and he succeeds, mirroring his fallen angel in the pitfalls and temptations for Graham, the angel he clearly wishes to have a fall too (if for no other reason than because he truly believes that Graham's intrinsic understanding will allow him to be Hannibal's first truly worthy equal - and thus, to him, qualify to be his first true friend).

    Rounding out the cast we get a bunch of largely excellent series regulars (they change the sex of both Graham’s friend, Dr. Bloom – to great effect – and the sleazy tabloid weasel Freddie Lounds – to far lesser effect, basically making her an outright evil villain), some guest appearances from actors playing familiar Thomas Harris / Hannibal series characters (Dr. Chilton, Jimmy Price, Garrett Jacob Hobbs) and a number of familiar character actors popping up in a variety of roles: Gillian Anderson, Lance Henriksen, Eddie Izzard, Gina Torres and Molly Shannon (Anderson appears to be ageless and Izzard is particularly compelling playing a surprisingly atypical serial killer).

    Cleverly the show paints a wider picture than just Hannibal himself, but is also prepared to come full circle and crescendo its way to being all about the man. This seemingly harmless psychiatrist drafted in to consult for the FBI gradually, over the course of the 13-episode debut salvo, insinuates himself into every part of the Behavioural Science Unit, and into the lives of those within - he regularly accommodates Crawford for dinner (more often than not of the human variety) and his time with Graham becomes increasingly intense. As a viewer you can see why Graham becomes ever more dependent on his new 'friend' and the tragedy is that Hannibal is growing the same kind of dependency, only his is far less healthy. Bodies drop, nightmares become more real, and imminent horror is awaiting all those involved when the realisation of who Hannibal is, is revealed upon those who have come to trust him. It's all a matter of when, and this ticking time-bomb of a storyline makes the series at least as tense as any counter-terrorist operation Jack Bauer may have been involved in.


    Hannibal Grotesque
    Some critics of the show have criticised the glossy style of the piece, and the slow, contemplative tempo, but I think that it is perfect pacing for the subject-matter, allowing just the right amount of time of the psychologically-probing dialogue to sink in and get right under your skin. And, yes, it's a glossy, unrealistically perfect-looking show, but that only works for the in-your-mind antics, as if Bryan Fuller had consulted Tarsem Singh (The Cell, Immortals, The Fall) on just how to make a the show look clinically surreal; how to craft a visually opulent world of unfathomably beauty and unspeakable horror. The blood-red walls of Lecter's mahogany-furnished office; the starling symmetry in the way in which one of the bodies are posed - wait until you see the totem. Exquisitely grotesque, it's a work of horrific art.

    And that's what the series has returned to: its horror routes. Sure, it's psychological horror - you'd be pushed to find a show as intellectual as this - but its horror nonetheless, right down to the creepy, disconcerting and cleverly underplayed score, which further helps the material to permeate into and under your skin.

    “Don't psychoanalyze me. You won't like me when I'm psychoanalyzed.”

    The rub

    Ultimately, you'll watch this show for Lecter vs Graham, the strangest of friends who don't yet know they're archenemies; the angels looking down upon mankind with the superiority afforded to them by their natural gifts - pure psychopathy and pure empathy - one oblivious to the fact that the other has already fallen. This is where it begins.

    The Rundown

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