This review contains spoilers.
Potential is a difficult thing to manage. On the one hand, it proclaims that something has all the makings of greatness. But in the same breath it sets up an expectation which often requires a Herculean effort to achieve. Such it is with NBC’s new series Hannibal.
It would be hard for the series to ask for a better pedigree. The story of Hannibal Lecter was first laid out in the novels of Thomas Harris, whose chilling work, lauded by the likes of Stephen King and Roald Dahl, has already covered a large swath of the deadly and cannibalistic career of the psychotic psychiatrist. Each of Harris’ novels was then adapted for the silver screen with three of the five films doing very well in different respects: The Silence Of The Lambs took home the top five Oscars, Manhunter has been deemed in retrospect a stylish 80s classic, and Hannibal has to date made almost half a billion dollars. Only the ironically named Hannibal Rising sank like a lead balloon both in the eyes of critics and mainstream audiences, while Red Dragon was at least a tepid success. But still, it is a franchise that boasts great achievements.
The leap to network television, however, is a tricky thing. After all, the novels and books are steeped in gore, sexual and culinary depravity, and sadism, and the broadcast networks have had to censor the films heavily to show them at all. Paradoxically, it is those same films that have made this television show possible, albeit indirectly. They sparked an interest in forensics and criminal profiling which meant there was an audience for the CSI franchise as well as the more closely related Criminal Minds. The latter, in fact, pushed the envelope of acceptable psychosis on TV to the point where Lecter might actually be thought of as unimaginative and, for better or worse, acclimatised American audiences to a level of grisly horror unthinkable a decade ago. Thus our appetites are both whetted and also a bit jaded. Hannibal has much to overcome.
Luckily, the first episode is quite promising.
The show reintroduces us to the character of Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), a criminal profiler whose “pure empathy” not only allows him but actually forces him to see the victims and the crimes perpetrated on them from the point of view of the killer. It is unclear whether this is a result or the cause of his mental instability, a condition which has forced him to retire from the field to take a teaching position at the FBI Academy at Quantico (which will eventually produce agent Clarice Starling). He is carefully approached by Special Agent Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) – who seems already aware that Graham’s need for isolation amounts to a kind of self-erected Asperger’s – to help out on a case involving serial abductions.
When Graham begins quickly to unravel, Crawford consults with Dr. Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas), a colleague of Graham’s, about his gifts and difficulties and she, in turn, recommends that the Special Agent bring her former associate Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen, Bond baddie from Casino Royale) in to help with the case (and Graham, apparently). The three men are quickly established as a somewhat uneasy team, and they succeed in solving their first case.
While some of this breaks with the previously established continuity of Harris’ stories, the pilot relies (as, we assume, the entire series will) on our awareness of who Hannibal Lecter is or will become. The very first time we see him, he is framed in a way to suggest that he has already begun feasting on human flesh and may well be one or both of the suspects they are searching for. The fastidiousness so clearly established in Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal is subtly gestured at, as is the psychiatrist’s infamous habit of both helping and playing with his clients.
The episode also weaves in more stylistic touches from the films. Michael Mann’s pastels are replaced with coloured filters which distinguish the real world from the lethal mindset Graham is forced to accept to understand the murderers they seek. Stark images from his imagination stand in for the cutaways to Starling’s seminal experience on the sheep ranch that we saw in The Silence of the Lambs. And although these are well-handled in this introduction, I’m already tempted to wonder if they, along with what appears to be a swinging fluorescent light used as a transitional element, will become heavy-handed and stale over the course of many more episodes.
The cast, for the most part, seems up to the task of ensuring a decent run for the show. Laurence Fishburne’s turn on CSI stands him in good stead here, and Dancy has enough of the sensitivity and pain necessary to make Graham into a layered and perhaps admirable character. Much rests on Mikkelsen’s depiction of the eponymous character, and it is he who has the most to overcome. Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar for his original outing as Hannibal was well-deserved: He is on-screen for all of 16 minutes in The Silence Of The Lambs. However, in that time, he establishes not only one of the greatest evils in cinematic history but imbues his cannibal with a warped spark of humanity and charm that make him lethally irresistible and unforgettable. Hannibal is Anthony Hopkins.
Which makes Mikkelsen’s Danish accent difficult to overcome. Hopkins’ hissing, whispering, beguiling English tones are etched in our aural memories to the point where Mikkelsen’s voice distracts. And while he lacks the charm (thus far) that allowed his predecessor’s psychopath to do all the damage that he did, there is still a menace exuding from him that even his turn as Le Chiffre in Casino Royale lacked. I am not without hope that he may rise to the challenge.
Certainly many of the other elements are there. The cinematography is gorgeous, with real depth. Even the blood spatter is given a richness that forces us to see a macabre beauty in it (paralleling Graham’s own experience of it from the killer’s point of view, one assumes). The scoring is fairly minimal (compared to Mann’s Manhunter especially) and largely atmospheric. And the direction makes this look far more like a cable drama than a network one.
Thus, the potential is definite. This week’s crime plotline was weak, it’s true, but with all the work to be done to establish the series in this Aperitif, that’s hardly a grave sin. There is little reason to think that Hannibal will rise to the level of The Silence of the Lambs. But there are enough of the building blocks to allow this television outing, with careful shepherding, to take a place among the more successful relatives in the Hannibal Lecter family.
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