“This is my design”: Why HANNIBAL tastes so good

Hannibal, the television series devised by the unreasonably talented Bryan Fuller, has been renewed for a second season, and I couldn’t be happier. This ‘Trailer Trash’ column I wrote for Inpress magazine attempts to explain why:

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Ridley Scott’s 2001 film Hannibal was an ugly, unwieldy mess. The television series Hannibal, on the other hand, is elegant, hypnotic and compulsively watchable – maybe it says more about me than I care to admit, but I’ve had the episodes that have aired to date playing on a near-constant loop in the background. (I will of course press pause to watch Celebrity Splash because, hey, who wouldn’t do that?)

Now, for a while there I fell back on my customary reasoning as to why one Hannibal works and the other doesn’t – the film made the fatal flaw of assuming that cannibalistic shrink Dr Hannibal Lecter is a lead rather than a supporting character; the series makes him a member of an ensemble – but as the story has progressed and Lecter has become more and more prevalent, that theory seems to hold less and less water.

So why has Hannibal sunk its claws so deep into my imagination? (As it may yours if you give it a whirl, and you really should. It’s currently airing on Seven…or you could obtain it other ways, but you didn’t hear that from me.)

For one, I’m an easy mark for terrific performances…which can sometimes be different from terrific acting. The two, of course, can and often do go hand in hand. In Hannibal’s case, there’s theatricality to the performances by the wonderfully well-selected core cast that catches the eye and the ear –the bone-deep weariness and trembling vulnerability of Hugh Dancy’s FBI investigator Will Graham, blessed and cursed with “pure empathy” that allows him to slip into the skins of brutal serial killers; the chilly precision of Mads Mikkelsen’s Lecter (this is a real casting coup; the angular planes of the actor’s face are beautiful and terrifying) – but it’s complemented by the desire for human connection both characters have and both actors convey subtly and sensitively (yes, even in Lecter’s case – he’s a manipulative, murderous monster, and Hannibal never lets you forget that, but there’s some form of a soul under the formal demeanour and impeccably-tailored suits).

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The same goes for Laurence Fishburne as Graham’s superior. Fishburne’s forceful presence has made him a go-to for authority figures in recent years, and the series uses it effectively, but then there are also scenes between Fishburne and Firefly’s equally great Gina Torres (the real-life husband and wife play a loving, long-married couple) that are as tender, honest and heart-rending as anything I’ve seen recently.

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That’s what it boils down to for me. Hannibal is a horror show, undoubtedly – there are grotesque crime-scene tableaux and depictions of violence that reset the benchmark for commercial television, so be warned – but going hand-in-hand with that gruesome aspect of the series is a constant awareness of the preciousness and precariousness of life and the dread and sorrow that can accompany it being snuffed out violently or sucked away gradually.

It’s why Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs remains resonant and haunting two decades on while the likes of Scott’s Hannibal or Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon have all but faded from memory. Hannibal understands and expresses it, all the while suffusing the series with an incredible visual and aural style (watch for Shining references!) and even a slyly perverse wit. I mean, the elaborate gourmet meals Lecter serves to his guests may have some questionable ingredients but goddamn if they don’t make one’s mouth water.

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