MarvMarsh takes his shades off and admits, like David Caruso, that there may be more to serial killers than he previously admitted. SPOILERS!
A couple of years ago I was allowed on this website to explain that the glory days of serial killers in the cinema were over. I suggested that serial killers had been driven off the big screen and had found shelter on the small one, where they’d taken up residence on cop shows with seasons’ worth of nonsense to shovel into a box set. This scenario lacked dignity (if you were a serial killer) but it paid the rent. Happily for me, Brian Fuller has gone out of his way to prove me right by creating a television series based on the greatest serial killer of them all, Hannibal Lecter. Thanks Brian; I appreciate it.
I also appreciate that he has made an excellent job of it. By the end of the third Hannibal film, the intriguingly named Hannibal, the character had sunk to such grievous, humiliating lows that it was like seeing an ex-heavyweight boxing world champion wrestling a monkey at a carnival. And remember, this is the man once awarded the title of greatest movie villain of all time by the American Film Institute. A title much coveted, as you can imagine. Darth Vader, Norman Bates, The Joker, Dominic Torretto out of The Fast and the Furious: they were all after it, but Hannibal got it. So what happened to Hannibal is sad indeed. Thomas Harris, the character’s creator, had ratcheted up the operatic ludicrousness that was always a feature of the series and – consciously or not – turned the whole thing into an overblown fiesta of grand-scale idiocy. Ridley Scott directed the film version and sadly decided that Harris was right.
Should you be in any doubt that everything had spun out of control, consider that there is a rich bad guy in it who sliced off his own face and now spends his days in bed drinking Martinis mixed with the tears of children. Chilling, eh? Anyway, after that disaster, and the subsequent waste of time that was Hannibal Rising, the easy option for taking another run at Hannibal would be to start with a completely different perspective – make the whole thing grimy and shaky cam, perhaps. But what Fuller has done is take the operatic and the baroque nature of the Hannibal story and repurpose it with enough care, wit and style that Hannibal the monster has been washed clean of his sins (well, the artistic ones) but not washed away.
Any Hannibal Lecter television series had the potential to be the biggest pile of turds ever stacked, so there were plenty of people sitting down to watch the first episode with expectations dialled right down to somewhere around Kevin Bacon’s mobile phone adverts. Happily, Hannibal has clearly seen Kev’s adverts and decided to go another way. Right from the off Hannibal creates an atmosphere of starkness and elegance. Actually, the programme it puts me in mind of is Millennium, that grim old thing from the 90s wherein Lance Henriksen went round murder scenes adding his gloomy face to the general sense of despair week in week out. Lance could always be depended on to cheer up absolutely nobody. Hugh Dancy as FBI profiler Will Graham is easily his equal.
Right, elegance. That’s an awful word, isn’t it? I know as well as anyone that self-styled elegant refined types smirking gently at each other while having a conversation that they believe to be witty and cutting is about as annoying as human beings can possibly be on television, short of being Rufus Hound giving an opinion for cash. I know this. So please trust me that my claim that Hannibal is elegant is not a criticism; it’s not that sort of elegance. Well, actually it sort of is, but it works, and not just because Hannibal is feeding people delicately poached human face while it goes on.
The starkness of it all may be a consequence of a small budget but I prefer to think is a deliberate choice made by people who are talented and they give a shit, and it shows. They make good choices at almost every turn. The wildly dramatic tableaux of victims fit very nicely thank you in the atmosphere of dread and theatricality. There is a blot though; an Izzard-shaped blot. Quite what Hannibal The Psychiatrist would think if that turned up as an answer in a Rorschach test I don’t know – even he might recoil in horror for a moment – but this blot is unfortunately real. Eddie Izzard is in the show, playing a character called Doctor Bollockactingman or something who is supposed to remind us all of the Hannibal Lecter given to us by Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. Only, while Anthony Hopkins might be a camp old overacting cash-gobbling drama queen, he is pretty good at it. Izzard, on the very other hand, lacks any theatricality, charisma, style or, not to put too fine a point on it, acting talent. He is like an actual real life mental patient who believes he is Anthony Hopkins. If the cameras had kept rolling he would probably have given us a bit of his Captain Bligh, or maybe Richard Nixon.
Let us leave aside that unfortunate casting decision and move on to the far more consequential and thankfully excellent choices for the key figures of Will Graham and Hannibal. Hugh Dancy, whose name is so nearly funny but isn’t, and Mads Mikkelsen are Will and Hannibal and very good they are too. Especially, to my mind, Hugh.
Will Graham may not be a raving psychopath himself but he has quite the affinity with them. Luckily, the psychopaths he investigates aren’t the sort to turn up, commit a murder and then leave quietly, making sure the door is properly closed, because those would not really allow Will to display his ability. What Will can do is place himself in the role of the murderer and from the crime scene piece together what took place, sort of like reverse engineering but with dead people. If all that took place was that someone got stabbed then, well, I don’t know if he’d be getting the big money he must be getting.
Murders Will has understood include someone using people’s corpses to grow really good mushrooms (a method Alan Titchmarsh never recommended; which is probably why we see less of him these days) and someone who flayed the skin from his victims’ backs and made it into wings so they could be angels watching over him as he slept. The big nut. Of course, the giant blind spot for Will is Hannibal. All these murderers, and the biggest one of the lot is standing right there in his expensive suit with his floppy hair swept neatly into place. Will Graham is like a zoologist who can identify a thousand types of rare creature just from their footprints but can’t tell you that the gigantic leathery thing with a huge nose stood right in front of him is an elephant. This goes past dramatic irony and practically into pantomime. Maybe Hannibal should sneak up behind him and do a little dance so we can all shout, ‘The big mad cannibal fuck is behind you!’. If it did go full pantomime the chances of Will being played by H from Steps would greatly increase, though, and that would be a shame. Not because H wouldn’t bring his own stardust to the programme but because Hugh Dancy is convincingly troubled and a bit mad and if he wasn’t then the whole thing would probably fall apart.
The main driver of the series is Will’s disintegration, aided whenever possible by Hannibal from his privileged position as Will’s confidante. Thought not officially Will’s psychiatrist, he very much unofficially is, and being the World’s Greatest Villain he can’t help but abuse that position by scrambling Will’s poor fevered head as best he can, which is pretty well. Their relationship is, I suppose, the point of the programme. Although the “we are the same, you and I,” relationship between a goodie and a baddie is the most shamefully easy idea in all of fiction, and for all that Hannibal skirts close to it, Will and Hannibal’s relationship is not quite one of kindred spirits. Rather they would both at various times quite like to be kindred spirits but they actually aren’t. Mainly because Will isn’t actually a raving psychopath, he just worries that he might be.
What they do share though is a sense of isolation. Will lives alone except for his pack of dogs, and Hannibal, the poor lamb, feels alone, up there in his refined, intellectual, artistic serial killer ivory tower. To amuse himself he has people to dinner (and people for dinner, of course) but that is just theatrics; it isn’t a genuine connection with someone, which is what he truly desires. His tears when he has to give up trying to forge a bond with Abigail Hobbs (and murders her and buries the body because he’s Hannibal) are a genuine grief for that failure. Poor lad.
Mads Mikkelsen makes a very good Hannibal Lecter. Clearly superior to Hopkins’ ludicrous turn and up there with Brian Cox’s deliberately low-wattage and all the better for it performance in Manhunter, Mikkelsen is both grand and subtle. He fully embraces the big, Grand Guignol madness and the refined-man-of-manners aspects of the character and does it without looking like he might laugh at any moment, which is quite something seeing as every week he knocks up a delicious meal of human being. So well done Mads. He opens up the Hannibal Lecter of the series to being lonely and vulnerable, as well as partial to killing people and showing off what he’s done. Sometimes of course even Hannibal must be discreet.
All of this relates to what you might, if you felt like wafting your hands about a bit, call the life of the mind: Hannibal shows us all in our little silos, in our heads, trying to make paths to other people’s little silos, and understand what is going on inside our own. Half the people in it are psychiatrists, so the programme isn’t exactly hiding that interest. There is also lots about the body: Will and Crawford’s wife are both let down by theirs, Hannibal of course tucks into plenty of them. The body is weak and of limited value, be it as a vehicle, a meal or an art material; the mind is where it’s at. Will believes he is losing his mind but actually it is his brain that is the problem and that is far preferable; Hannibal started off fixing bodies before finding minds of more interest. And of course it is bodies that are put on display in the tableaux of murder victims. Hannibal is ultimately about people trying to find intimacy, or fellow-travellers. And psychopaths finding elaborate ways to kill people.
New television programmes are born with their neck in a noose but Hannibal has got to the end of series one without the trapdoor opening, so at that basic level the decision to make it has been justified. More importantly, it has resulted in a very well-made and entertaining programme. I know everybody goes on about Walter White these days, and exhuming Hannibal Lecter in the current television era seems a bit like turning up for your first round match at Wimbledon with a wooden racquet and long trousers. But give the old boy a chance: he’s still got game.
Hannibal Season 1 is released on DVD on 2 September through StudioCanal.