Hannibal: 101 “Apéritif” Review
Reviewed by Gabriel Bergmoser.
When the news was first announced that a Hannibal Lecter prequel series was going into production at NBC, the sound of millions of eyes rolling around the world could very distinctly be heard. After all, ever since the lightning-in-a-bottle genius of The Silence of the Lambs, this was a series that had become sillier and less relevant with every instalment. The underrated Red Dragon aside, Hannibal was an ugly, over the top affair without any hint of subtlety and the less said about Hannibal Rising the better. Let’s just say it involves the once feared Dr Lecter becoming a samurai. I’m not even joking.
So what ground could a television series cover that had not already been done to death? Well quite a lot, as it turns out. Even if you choose to accept Hannibal Rising as canon, it still leaves an enormous gap in the good Doctor’s life story. That film/book ends with him beginning to train as a psychiatrist upon his move to America. Red Dragon, the chronological next part in the series, opens with his capture. What we never see is his years as a leading psychiatrist, his work with the FBI and above all, his relationship with possibly the most interesting character in the entire saga; Special Investigator Will Graham. Graham, an FBI agent with the ability to assume the point of view of murderers and, consequently a man with a lot of serious mental issues, has always been Lecter’s true equal. Their relationship in Red Dragon was fascinating; one of mutual respect, loathing and understanding. It is the only aspect of the franchise that has not been exploited enough and it looks like this television series is here to do the job.
And what a job it does. From the opening scene, Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) has our attention, as, with a look of weary resignation on his face; he steps into a crime scene and shoots dead a man and a woman. His expression turns chilling and immediately we realise; this is in his head, this is his process, and it is killing him. The most surprising thing about a series called Hannibal is that Hannibal Lecter, one of the most iconic figures in film history, is in fact not the main character. He doesn’t even appear until halfway through the episode, by which point we are already well invested in Will Graham’s plight. Hugh Dancy manages to generate incredible sympathy for the character through facial expression alone. Graham is a man who collects stray dogs to live in his house because he connects with them far better than he does people. He spends his nights watching television with a scotch in hand, surrounded by this makeshift family; dreading sleep because he knows what his dreams are going to hold. And yet, Graham knows that if he does not do what he is doing, people will die. Will is a man traumatised by what he does but time and time again guilt tripped by his boss, Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne), into returning to catch another killer. And each time, Will is losing his grip just a little bit more.
It’s a credit to Laurence Fishburne that the incredibly manipulative Jack Crawford is at all likable. Crawford, another character faithfully adapted from the source material, is the ultimate pragmatist. At the end of the day, he cares about Graham’s mental state only because he does not want his best investigator compromised. So, as he is continuously advised to refer Graham for a psychiatric evaluation, he turns to Doctor Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelson).
Unsurprisingly, it will be Mikkelson who undergoes the most scrutiny on this show. Although technically the last actor to portray Hannibal Lecter was Gaspard Ulliel, it is to Anthony Hopkins that he will inevitably be compared. However Mikkelson has chosen to go in a completely different direction to Hopkins, one that may seem initially jarring. Yet, having seen the next few episodes, I can promise that once Mikkelson settles in his Lecter truly begins to impress. For those familiar with the books, this is a performance much closer to the character as originally set down by Thomas Harris. Quiet and softly spoken, witty and intelligent. He gives nothing away, his face remains almost always impassive, yet there are flashes of both warmth and malice there as well. Occasionally the black humour Hopkins brought to the role comes through, but it is refreshingly minimal. Hopkins’ Lecter eventually descended into self-parody. This, however, is something different entirely. Later films tried to recast Hannibal as some sort of Dexter-esque vigilante, in some feeble attempt to justify the audience’s sympathy for him. In a very brave move on the part of the writers here, that approach is completely bypassed. This Hannibal is a monster, plain and simple. Likable, fascinating, cultured, intelligent and insightful, but utterly, utterly dangerous. What may surprise viewers in the first episode is how understated Mikkelson is. Fans of Silence of the Lambs in particular will remember a showy Lecter, prone to imitating accents and making slurpy noises. Watching the pilot episode of this show, you may be forgiven for thinking that Mikkelson is not really trying. I was initially disappointed by him and slightly put off by his thick Danish accent. But again, I was at least in part hoping for Hopkins 2.0. Stick with it, and you will see that Mikkelson is doing something new and very exciting with the character. In later episodes he is an absolute delight to watch and there are moments where you count the seconds until he is next on screen.
But what of the episode itself? I will be the first to admit that it can be a shock. Whereas the films (Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon in particular) are in many ways just straightforward police procedural thrillers, the television series has chosen to delve deeper than that. This is a show obsessed with psychology and the impulses that make people kill. Sometimes the procedural aspect is left by the wayside, and be prepared for many, many scenes of various characters in Dr. Lecter’s office delivering powerful monologues about God and death. If this sounds pretentious I assure you it is not, but this is a program that is not interested in being fast paced. It takes its characters and their work seriously, and through the mirror of Dr. Lecter, breaks down the motivations of each and every one of them. It is, for want of a better comparison, the Mad Men of crime thrillers. Fans of the films will likely go in expecting something more straightforward, less dreamlike and philosophical. But give Hannibal time to prove itself, and you will be rewarded with one of the most well written, well-acted, creepy and fascinatingly hypnotic programs on television.