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Monitor: How Hannibal gnawed away at the bones of traditional television

For Monitor this week, Aaron Yap chews on Hannibal, Bryan Fuller’s televisual masterpiece of the macabre.

At some point, Hannibal morphed into television’s most beautiful and downright terrifying creature. Creator Bryan Fuller wasn’t content to serve us another serial-killer-of-the-week procedural. Nor was he satisfied with providing merely a functional corrective to garbage like Red Dragon and Hannibal Rising, both which sullied our memories of one of modern horror’s most beloved and iconic monsters (Ridley Scott’s Hannibal is bad too, but I do have a soft spot for it).

Fuller’s Hannibal would rise to match –  and some might even say, surpass – those two masterful cinematic adaptations of Thomas Harris’ literary creation: Michael Mann’s Manhunter and Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs.

This publicity image released by NBC shows Danish actor Mads Mikkelson as Dr. Hannial Lecter in a scene from the upcoming TV series, "Hannibal."  The series, based on the Thomas Harris novels and starring Mikkelson, Hugh Dancy, and Laurence Fishburne, will premiere on April 4, 2013 on NBC.  (AP Photo/NBC, Brooke Palmer)

A genuine network outlier, it was a show so confident and resolute in its artiness that it never pulled an audience wide enough to ensure its own survival. It was perhaps a shade too cerebral for those who would religiously tune in to watch the blood flow in The Walking Dead and American Horror Story.

For us loyal Fannibals who’ve watched it turn into the unholy, awe-inspiring union of MasterChef, Joel-Peter Witkin and David Lynch that we never knew we needed – it was a divine thing. Fuller gnawed away at everything we knew about network TV and left us with the throbbing, resplendent gristle of peak-TV potential.

Fuller’s thematic preoccupation with all things morbid – as evidenced in shows like Dead Like Me and Pushing Daisies – made him an obvious candidate to bring Hannibal to life. But it’s his facility with unorthodox character relationships that’s the most surprising.

Amid the grim weekly sleuthing into gruesome murders, this iteration of Harris’ characters locks into the twisted bond between supernaturally gifted FBI profiler, Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), and his liver-munching, haute-cultured psychiatrist frenemy, Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), with mesmerising, almost homo-erotic intensity. One could even make a case for Hannibal being a devastating chronicle of one of TV’s all-time great dysfunctional marriages.

hannibal will

More so than in the books, and the various screen versions, Will emerges a fully developed character. Dancy gives him a previously unseen element of humanity, making his struggles with encephalitis and ability to reconstruct grisly crime scenes from a killer’s perspective an affecting experience.

Mikkelsen’s frostily charming Lecter is a feat of micro-acting, positively erasing any attachment I had to Anthony Hopkins’ seminal scene-chewing, lip-licking portrayal. The restrained approach also makes this Lecter so much more monstrous when he strikes out.

The same restraint doesn’t extend to the show’s distinctly baroque, surrealistic visual style. “We are not making television. We are making a pretentious art film from the ‘80s”, Fuller has repeatedly said. Shows like Penny Dreadful and The Returned do laudable work making the macabre look elegant and gorgeous, but Hannibal is altogether something else – and more.

Photographed by James Hawkinson, its images are often suffused with rich gradients of reds and turquoise and marked by a heavy use of shallow focus and deep shadows. You will see the knife-edge precision of Stanley Kubrick, the ornate sensuality of Peter Greenaway and the feverish fugue states of Lynch.

Whether plunging us into Will’s fragmented psyche, lingering over Hannibal’s human-derived culinary extravagance or surveying its signature tableaus of perversely repurposed corpses, Hannibal constantly forces the viewer to regard the binary aesthetics of its horror: it’s too revolting to look at, and too pretty to look away.

hannibal florence

Season three further pushes the show’s sensory palette into the realms of abstraction. Even by Hannibal’s ballsy standards, the opening of “Antipasto” is strikingly disorientating – a trippy swirl of shapes and colour dissolving into each other. There’s little hurry to answer those questions left in the wake of the previous season’s pulverising finale, which ended with key characters bleeding out, on the verge of death.

The fuck-it attitude is enthralling. It’s as if Fuller knew that there was no point in making concessions to curious newcomers this late in the game,.

I’m particularly taken by the European vibe of the season’s location shift. Seeing Hannibal ride a motorbike around Paris, leather-clad, face obscured in helmet, holding a sleek, ice-cool charge that’s part Massimo Dallamano’s giallo What Have They Done To Your Daughters?, part Marianne Faithfull in The Girl on a Motorcycle.

Brian Reitzell’s ever-menacing, atmospheric score has absorbed strains of Ennio Morricone’s more dissonant moments and Goblin’s proggy, blood-curdling synth. Will traipsing around fog-shrouded grounds of Hannibal’s Lithuanian childhood home in “Secondo” is pure Gothic Hammer. Hannibal also looks cosy tucked under the looming arches and sky-scraping ceiling frescoes of Florence’s grand, opulent cathedrals. If there is an ideal place for Il Mostro to indulge his demented God complex, this is it.

“You no longer have ethical concerns, Hannibal. You have aesthetical ones,” his former shrink Bedelia (Gillian Anderson) tells him. “Ethics become aesthetics,” Hannibal replies. In much the same way, the show’s form and content have become inextricable.

Hannibal is one audacious beast, and we are invited to dine at its table while peering into the enveloping chasms of its dark, vicious heart.


Click below to chew into the complete series of Hannibal on Lightbox

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