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Hannibal – Aperitif (Review)

I’ll admit to being a bit sceptical about Hannibal as a concept. I am quite fond of all three of the Anthony Hopkins films, although I realise that both Red Dragon and Hannibal are flawed pieces of work at best. I also have a soft spot for Michael Mann’s Manhunter, even if I am not as firm a devotee as others. However, there’s a point where you reach saturation even with an especially interesting character.

There was something increasingly frustrating about watching Thomas Harris and various writers and directors delve beneath the surface of “Hannibal the Cannibal” to offer trite explanations and rationalisations for a character who was originally a force of nature. A television series seems to be the perfect way to over-saturate the market even further. If the character of Hannibal could seem trite and mundane after four films released years apart, how do you make a weekly television series exciting?

Surely you’ll either resort to explaining away all the mystery of the character, or you’ll simply wind up with a particularly shallow and generic serial killer show. There is a middle ground to be found, but it will be hard to strike that balance. With that in mind, I will confess that I am quite impressed with the pilot for Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal. Although it’s too early to form a definitive judgement, Aperitif is quite appetising.

The meat of the matter...

The meat of the matter…

Fuller seems to understand the risks that come with writing a television character based around Hannibal Lecter. Lecter is a character who works best in small doses. There’s a reason that Anthony Hopkins won the Best Actor Oscar for a role he played for less than twenty minutes in a two-hour film. The character is best teased and tantalised, lurking in the shadows and haunting the edge of the story even as he stares right through the camera and almost into the viewer’s eyes.

He’s terrifying because he looks so normal and so unassuming, while we’re keenly aware of some unpleasant otherness lurking just below the skin. He manages to seem both perfectly human and also strangely inhuman. He is a paradox. He’s well-mannered, educated and sophisticated. He’s also savage, brutal and animalistic. The balance is precarious at best and any in-depth look at Lecter risks upsetting that balance, turning him into either a flesh-and-blood sad story or a generic monster movie horror that just happens to look human.

A dogged investigator...

A dogged investigator…

Aperitif wisely keeps Lecter at the edge of the frame. He’s only fleetingly introduced at the half-way point. There’s no dialogue, just the sight of Mads Mikkelsen enjoying some fine dining as the Goldberg Variations play in the background. And yet we recognise him instantly. Mikkelsen is a fantastic choice for Lecter. He couldn’t possibly be further from Anthony Hopkins in terms of appearance or accent, while still retaining the essence of the character.

Casting Mikkelsen is a shrewd way of avoiding the temptation to turn Lecter into a pale imitation of Hopkins. Mikkelsen is an intimidating physical presence, but for different reasons than Hopkins was. His accent and his delivery are markedly different. He’s not as soft, nor as camp. It’s hard to imagine Mikkelsen cooing “is this Clarice? why hello Clarice…” in the same style as Hopkins, and that’s a good thing. It means that Mikkelsen’s performance stands apart from Hopkins and avoids the risk of being seen as mere imitation.

A flavour of menace...

A flavour of menace…

Of course, Mikkelsen also embodies the characteristics of Lecter which stand apart from Hopkins’ choices. Mikkelsen’s Lector is also sinister and secretive. He seems like as much of a human predator as Hopkins ever did. His accent and delivery speak to a man of culture and taste, while Mikkelsen’s steely face betrays a man capable of great violence. He perfectly captures the dichotomy of the character, but in a way which seems distinct from Hopkins’ performance.

However, Lecter is relegated to the background here. Fuller wisely decides to play up the mystery of the character. The show’s first case is an investigation into the murder of a bunch of college girls. While that is worlds apart from the flutist-eating sophisticate we say in Silence of the Lambs, it does speak to the character’s origins in Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon and Michale Mann’s Manhunter. The episode teases the possibility that Hannibal might be the serial killer the FBI are pursuing, even though he isn’t.

Flight of fancy?

Flight of fancy?

The show wisely refuses to commit on where exactly Hannibal is in his personal timeline. Is he already a killer? Is he a cannibal? Even off-hand remarks carry a delicious sinister air. Discussing his absent secretary, he muses, “She was predisposed to romantic whims. She followed her heart to London.” The show even teases an open-ended copycat killer mystery which seems to point towards Lecter, but shrewdly avoids confirming one way or the other. It’s nice to keep some mystery around the character, and the fact the season only runs to thirteen episodes means that things won’t be allowed to get too far out of hand.

Certainly, the use of a copycat killing to “help” the FBI better understand the killer fits with what we know of Lecter’s “screwed up personal therapist” schtick. “It was like he had to show me a negative so I could see a positive,” Will Graham observes. This seems particular ominous when Hannibal promises Crawforf, “I think I can help good Will see his face.” We don’t really know one way or the other, but it’s a great set-up.

Should we expect a Lecter lecture soon?

Should we expect a Lecter lecture soon?

The only real undeniable evidence of Hannibal’s true nature is obvious at the episode’s climax, when he alerts a serial killer that the FBI is coming. It’s a rather wonderful moment of what seems like pure academic curiosity from Lecter. The character in Harris’ book was extremely petty – pointing a serial killer at Graham’s family – but here he seems to be doing it for kicks in a “what will happen..?” sort of way. There’s a sense that Lecter is genuinely curious about Will Graham, and Hannibal actually excels in exploring that dynamic.

In Harris’ books and in the films based on them, it seemed like Lecter’s fascination with Graham was at least partially rooted in the fact that Graham was the profiler who eventually caught Lecter after consulting with him. Aperitif hints at some deeper fascination, suggesting that Lecter’s curiosity is aroused by Graham’s extreme empathy. It’s a nice idea. Lecter is a psychiatrist with no empathy for his patients (Mikkelsen looks wonderfully bored in that therapy scene), so Graham is particularly fascinating to him.

A bloody business...

A bloody business…

Of course, Lecter isn’t the real focus of this episode, in what is a nice touch. Fuller instead decides to focus on Will Graham, the man who eventually caught Hannibal Lecter. I’ve always thought that Graham was one of the most interesting characters Thomas Harris ever created, and that he was never really done justice on screen – despite solid turns from Edward Norton and William Peterson. So the script’s focus on Graham is fascinating.

The show wisely opts away from the rigid police procedural formula that Harris’ books helped to create. Hannibal opens with Graham touring a crime scene in a way that evokes the opening of an episode of Criminal Minds or CSI, but instead pulls back to the specialist teaching in a classroom. The routine breadcrumb plot points of those sorts of procedurals are covered in only the most fleeting of fashions. When he and Hannibal arrive at a particular construction site, Graham explains, “Certain kind of metal. Certain kind of pipe. Certain kind of pipe coating. So we’re checking all the construction sites in the area that use that type of coating.”

I think we're cooking up a treat...

I think we’re cooking up a treat…

This isn’t a show obsessed with connecting the forensic dots. Instead, the characters are pushed to the front while the investigation takes place in the background. I really like that. There are enough police procedurals on the air that it’s nice to have one which serves primarily as a character study. Hannibal seems to trust that the audience is smart enough to follow the investigation if it’s handled with a few quick lines of exposition to leave more room for the cast of characters to do their thing.

Hannibal seems to pitch itself more as a horror show than a forensic investigative drama. Ghosts seem to haunt the show, and the imagery is more atmospheric and mood-driven than literal. The direction of the pilot episode by David Slade draws heavily on horror imagery. I find it interesting that the title card notes the show is “based on characters from the book ‘Red Dragon’ by Thomas Harris”, rather than the books by Thomas Harris. Does this mean the show is prevented from using characters like Mason Verger or Jame Gumb or Clarice Starling?

Redroom, redroom!

Redroom, redroom!

Not that I don’t trust Fuller and his crew to work with the restrictions given, but it’s quite clear – both here and in the next episode – that The Silence of the Lambs is also a major influence. Slade borrows quite heavily from the most iconic Lecter movie. The shot of Hannibal enjoying a nice dinner is set to the soundtrack of the Goldberg Variations, part of an iconic set piece from that film. The map with the pins and the pictures of the victims can’t help but evoke the way that Starling is introduced to the Buffalo Bill killings that movie. Slade also acknowledges influences outside of the Lecter films, with one confrontation in a toilet evoking The Shining.

Aperitif gets the show off to a strong start. While I’m not quite committed at this phase, I’m definitely on board for seconds.

6 Responses

  1. Stick with it, it only gets better!

  2. They only have the rights to characters from Red Dragon, another network is developing a series based on characters from Silence of the Lambs focusing on Clarice Starling. Fullers has mentioned in interviews that he attempted to get permission to use characters from other books, specifically he hoped to explain how the mans head ended up in the jar that Starling finds in Lambs i think, but he was denied permission.

    • I heard something like that. It’s particularly obvious later in the season when they riff on Silence of the Lambs with Eddie Izzard and the female trainee, which seems to be an attempt by Fuller to get the Silence-ness out of his system, at least for the moment. (Although he does have arcs planned for later seasons to cover similar ground, I believe.)

      Rumour has it Mason Verger is appearing next year, which should be interesting.

  3. Echoing Barry’s comments, stick with the show. I gave up after 3 or so episodes and was encouraged to give it another go. And I was hooked. They delve into an actual storyline, rather than the murder of the week style of show. Which, from a network TV show, is refreshing.

    • I agree. I watched the show. The first episodes struggle a bit with the “serial killer of the week” format, but I think it improves quickly. By about half-way through the first season, it’s probably the best new American television show this year.

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