Anyone who was worried that this Hannibal Lecter prequel television series would be a cheap cash-in can rest easy. Each successive announcemount of the talent involved, from creator Bryan Fuller to new Lecter Mads Mikkelsen, reassured us that this would be a classier proposition than we might have feared, and this first episode shows that Fuller not only knows and loves the Thomas Harris novels, but is capable of giving us something dark and disturbing enough to sit comfortably alongside the best in the Lecter canon.
Hannibal takes place in the years before Red Dragon and introduces us to that novel’s protagonist: Agent Will Graham (Hugh Dancy). Graham is brilliant but unstable; possessing the ability to place himself in the mindset of others leaves him vulnerable and afraid to leave the safety of his classroom. But Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) needs Graham’s talents to solve a series of murders that has baffled the behavioural science unit. Aware of the risks from placing Graham in the field, Crawford engages the services of noted psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter (Mikkelsen) to ensure the agent’s mind remains intact.
Fuller’s shows have always had a striking visual sensibility (anyone who’s seen the beautiful Pushing Daisies can testify to that), but the Dead Like Me creator has also long had a taste for the morbid. Hannibal represents his darkest work to date, emphasised by the striking recreation of a murder scene that kicks off this pilot. While the ‘cleaning the slate’ effect is a bit clunky, replacing the killer with Graham is hugely effective, as Dancy kicks down the front door, shoots the husband and wife and quickly deduces how the killer disabled the alarm. “And this is when it gets truly horrifying for Mrs Marlow,” he intones. Then we’re back in his classroom, where he’s been hiding from the outside world. Dancy (Martha Marcy May Marlene) performs a delicate balancing act with Graham, portraying his brilliance and character quirks while keeping him sympathetic. There’s very little of the arrogance that comes with, say, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock. Graham’s aware of his talents, but terrified of what comes with them.
The show might be called Hannibal, but Fuller is sensible enough to know that the character has always worked better as an foil rather than a protagonist. The cannibal psychiatrist is much more interesting when he’s just to the side, observing and waiting for his moment. By placing the focus on Graham, Fuller quickly makes the Lecter character much more interesting and scary. We’re nearly halfway through the pilot before we’re introduced to Mikkelsen’s version of the character. We get a quick flash of some ominous dining, and then we meet him in his professional capacity, treating a highly anxious patient (Fanboys‘ Dan Fogler) and casting a disapproving glance at a discarded snotty tissue.
Mikkelsen is inspired casting for Hannibal Lecter, and it’s also a really interesting time for the actor to take the role. He’s still best known for his villains, but he also won the Palme D’Or last year for his role as a primary school teacher wrongly accused of molesting his students in Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt. It was a warm and powerfully human performance and showed the actor’s range. This might be a network TV show, but it’s great to to see that Mikkelsen isn’t making easy choices. The character shares Will’s gift for empathy (although he’s using it for much darker purposes), and he adjusts to each situation according to who he’s talking to. Take the scene in which Crawford comes to ask him for assistance. He’s reserved and cautious until Crawford explains he’s come to ask for his help. Once it’s established that he’s not in danger, his manner warms very slightly and sets us at ease. Mikkelsen can convey so much with a slight change of body language, allowing us to grow accustomed to him until a new situation arises and he needs to deal with it. What makes Mikkelsen a great Lecter is that we forget who he is… until he reminds us.
Lecter and Graham get two big scenes together in this episode, and both do a tremendous job. It’s a nice reversal of the usual dynamic that Lecter has been thrown into. Typically, he’s had wisdom to offer that he barters for details about the crime being investigated or the person asking the questions. Although he’s uncaged in this series, at present he has nothing to offer and must win Will’s confidence by being charming, understanding and a friend. Hannibal was in danger of becoming a Freddy Krueger-like figure with each successively hammier Hopkins performance, but by placing him in the outside world and forcing him to conceal his true nature, this pilot shows he’s just as fascinating when he’s quietly observing as when he’s smacking his lips. Hannibal’s interest in Will is obvious, but he will have to break down all his patient’s defences in order to get inside his head, without setting off any alarm bells. It should be fascinating to watch this relationship develop.
This pilot episode (directed with style and pace by Hard Candy and 30 Days Of Night‘s David Slade) follows neatly in the series’ tradition of police procedural mixed with gothic horror. The procedural aspect is represented by Laurence Fishburne’s Jack Crawford and the murders of the week he sends Will to solve. Previous incarnations of Crawford have shown that he’s not above a little conniving to get his way, and it’s interesting to see this quality pushed to the forefront. Fishburne’s Crawford is likeable and plain-spoken, but the manner in which he pushes Graham into the field shows that he’s a man who gets his way. He grinds down pragmatic profiler and Graham expert Alana Bloom (Wonderfalls star Caroline Dhavernas, lending some welcome human warmth and humour) essentially by telling her that he’s putting Graham into the field and that he’ll be in danger if she doesn’t help.
If the week’s whodunnit is solved a little too quickly, the details of the investigation are all nicely played. Things like the antler felt in the victim’s wounds, the comparison of the murders to Charlie And The Chocolate Factory (which is none more Fuller) and the academy toilet that’s straight out of The Shining all show that Fuller has the perfect sensibility for this material. This first episode of Hannibal is dark, funny, scary, and the interpretation of these characters shows that Fuller knows and loves his source material enough to be faithful, but is a brave and strong enough writer to adapt it to his own purposes. This is an excellent introduction to a new look at familiar characters. Bring on the next course.