The star of no less than four Thomas Harris novels and five big screen outings (the last, 2007’s Hannibal Rising, a commercial and critical flop), refined psychiatrist turned cannibalistic serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter now makes his TV series debut with NBC’s Bryan Fuller-produced Hannibal. Loosely based on Harris’ inaugural Lecter offering Red Dragon – also the inspiration for Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986) and Brett Ratner’s inferior 2002 film – Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen picks up the masochist mantle from Brian Cox, Anthony Hopkins and Gaspard Ulliel before him, with suitably chilling results.
Psychologically battered and bruised following the successful apprehension of sadistic local serial killer ‘the Minnesota Shrike’, unhinged criminal profiler Will Graham (British actor Hugh Dancy) threatens to walk away from his role at the FBI. However, when a copycat psychopath begins to build upon the Shrike’s bloody body of work, Jack Crawford (an authoritative Laurence Fishburne), the head of the Bureau’s Behavioural Science Unit, enlists the aid of renowned Baltimore psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mikkelsen) to monitor Graham’s mental health. Yet, unbeknownst to the brilliant Graham, the duplicitous Dr. Lecter also has an expert insight into these horrifying crimes and the deranged men and women who commit them.
Recovering admirably from a clumsy, almost CSI-esque pilot (the Shrike’s reign of terror is ended, Graham’s life is irrevocably changed etc. etc.), Fuller’s Hannibal settles itself into an eminently watchable cycle of mutilation-investigation-temporary resolution. It’s beneath (or indeed above) it all that the crime/horror series’ titular antagonist lies in wait, effortlessly manipulating Dancy’s Graham, now utterly absorbed by his quest to find and detain the enigmatic copycat killer. Of course, anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of Harris’ cannibal creation can see the saga’s climactic ‘shock’ reveal from episode one. The pleasure that Hannibal provides the viewer can instead be found in the mad chase and Graham’s own sociopathic machinations.
Those anticipating a Sopranos/The Wire-like level craft and ingenuity may well come away underwhelmed by Fuller’s knowingly exploitative manhunt. A calm, calculated Mikkelsen – and perhaps even the quivering Dancy – aside, there’s little in the way of awards-worthy performance here, with Hannibal operating best as a queasy, semi-trashy slice of late night entertainment rather than a challenging, complex meditation on humanity’s affinity for abhorrent acts of corporeal violence. It’s a slight shame to see such rich material often plumping for the lowest common denominator (i.e. stomach-churning gore) rather than sophisticated scares, but there’s still a lot here to sink your teeth into. Just watch out for the chewy gristle.