Episode 8 of season 3 of Hannibal was a debut in more senses than one. First and foremost, this is the episode where Francis Dolarhyde as portrayed by Richard Armitage makes his first appearance. Secondly, as a Hannibal virgin, this was *my* first time – of viewing a full episode of Hannibal. I came at this series with a huge amount of trepidation and with some reservations about what I perceive as the glamorization of murder in Hannibal. But let’s face it – the prospect of seeing Armitage act was always going to be too much of a temptation than to stand firm on my principles. As it is, although my innocence may be lost, I do not regret watching. And not only because Armitage is stunning in this role but because I the show is extremely well done in many aspects: The performances of the actors are nuanced and believable, the characterization of the protagonists is thoughtful and thought-provoking, the cinematography is clever and aesthetic, the dialogue is clever and amusing, the musical score is chillingly effective and the production values are very high. In short – I am hooked. At least on the Red Dragon story line. And here is why [Contains Spoilers and References to Unsavouries]:
Armitage Scene by Scene
Almost like a present to any Armitage fan, the episode starts with a long intro that focuses entirely on the “becoming” of the Red Dragon and thus leads the viewer into the background of Francis Dolarhyde’s story. This was almost like a “play in a play”, a whole story in itself, coming full circle from the beginning to the end: After a look at present-day Dolarhyde studying his hands and delving into a Time Magazine article on the Blake painting of the Red Dragon, we observe young Dolarhyde – signified by his untattooed body – as he is training in his make-shift studio in the attic, we see him scrutinizing a pair of dentures that he has had made in an oriental shop. In the same place we are also shown how he is tattooed. Eventually we are witness to his great becoming when he presents himself, naked but tattooed, to the Red Dragon on the easel, worshipping the beast and becoming one with it. Leaving the impressive body aside for the moment
as hard as that is, pun intended, what really stood out for me was the body control that Armitage has put into his portrayal of Dolarhyde. That is particularly obvious in the training scenes (and he has told us in various interviews that he took inspiration from Japanese butoh dance for this. Where the hell does he find these inspirations, btw? How do you search for something like that?), contorting his body in such a way that you almost think you perceive some mighty beast under the skin, occupying Dolarhyde like an empty vessel, trying to break through the skin, shedding the shell that Dolarhyde’s skin provides. But not only there, all of Dolarhyde’s movements appear carefully crafted. He displays a rigid stiffness, a deliberate slow motion intensity, and a certain gingerness, as if careful not to damage whatever is inside him. Armitage characterizes Dolarhyde through his body language – he is utterly *not* Armitage, and neither any other chaRActer whom he has played before. This is a completely original character – and you forget immediately that it is Armitage occupying this role.
Body acting really is Armitage’s forte,
something that I already thought when I saw him on stage last year. Imo he was most effective as Proctor when he did not have to speak too much but when he could let his body do the talking. This talent comes into its own in this episode as Dolarhyde is almost silent through-out. Instead his face, his eyes and his body speak. The rigid posture of the body translates to a piercing, unblinking gaze that Armitage has given Dolarhyde – again, unlike anything I have seen him do before. None of the characteristic nervous eyelash flutters, but a frightening intensity of pent-up frustration, passive-aggressive, anticipatory self-defense and the unblinking, frightening hubris of the insane serial killer. Dolarhyde’s intense gaze is terrifying, the face all sharp angles, from the hairline of the crew cut, the dark eyebrows and the thin, unsensual line of the mouth, to the pronounced vertical lines grooves on the root of his nose and the painfully obvious split lip. The lighting, although not particularly harsh, picks out the lines and adds contours thanks to the director’s penchant for backlighting.
Emotionally I was most taken with the mirror scene – the only time in this episode when we hear Dolarhyde making sounds. Staring into a broken mirror, he is practicing speech – S sounds in particular. Dolarhyde is deeply frustrated with his inability to enunciate clearly. He concentrates so hard, and yet his reward is nothing but humiliation. He comes across as deeply tortured, and the helpless, strangled scream for release appeals to the viewers’ compassion and sympathy. But as always with Dolarhyde, the Red Dragon is lurking in the background, unseen, but felt and heard, hissing sounds, growls, inhuman noises. This is quite clearly an attempt by the writers of the show to instil compassion for Dolarhyde in us – and an indication that they are indeed not trying to turn Dolarhyde into a pastiche serial killer, but in hinting at the human dimension of his story. Dolarhyde’s soul is as broken as the mirror he gazes into. While he is human, what is staring back at him from the mirror is a fragmented, split personality: the physically imperfect man, the eagerly-trying-to-please child, the frustrated and angry adult, and the awe-ful Red Dragon. Using the broken mirror as a prop, the film almost becomes a Cubist painting. No coincidence, of course – it may be subtle, but much like cubism (in painting) itself, the multiple viewpoints offered in the broken mirror are an attempt at presenting a multi-faceted portrait of Dolarhyde. The individual “facets” concentrate the effect.
The cinematography (by James Hawkinson?) in Hannibal is equally smashing, if you pardon the pun. Earlier glimpses into previous trailers of the show had already indicated that. The food close-ups are mouth-wateringly beautiful – wine being poured into a glass, pieces of chocolate submerging in softly viscous cream. For the most part, Hannibal seems to be filmed with a wide aperture – which blurs out the backgrounds and makes the objects and people in the foreground stand out sharply. That creates a very soft look for the film – which is in contrast with what is being discussed or shown on screen. A conflict of content vs presentation – which is thought-provoking and adds to the general feeling that something is off: A nasty cannibal, incarcerated in what looks like a chateau; a serial killer of families, given soft warm red and golden lighting; horrendous crimes, depicted through the metaphors of food and art. I still think the over-aesthetisizing is dangerously ambiguous. But I am beginning to get that it is done deliberately and for more than artistic effect.
As it is, Dolarhyde is not given the same “beautiful” mise-en-scene as Hannibal Lecter. He may be shot in warm tones (in his attic, in the oriental shop) but there is no aesthetic beauty in the depiction. He is chaos, disorder, clutter, frantic-ness. The scene where he watches his footage of the killing was in stark contrast to the aesthetic Hannibal. This scene stood out for me, too, because the cinematography and effects really got us into Dolarhyde’s head: Watching his footage, Dolarhyde becomes increasingly agitated. It was unclear to me whether he is really disgusted at the butchering of a family he has committed (as Armitage indicated) or at the botched performance (that’s what I took from the book – Dolarhyde is annoyed that his “performance” loses coherence towards the end of the killing spree). But the scene very effectively shows Dolarhyde’s increasing disappointment and anger. He perceives the rage of the Red Dragon and he frantically attempts to shut off the film projector. This eventually culminates in him getting caught up in the role of film. He becomes the deus ex machina (literally), a mechanical monster, gagged and bound by the film and with lights shining from his eyes and mouth, a robot, not a human. This is nightmarish, frightening, and you are right there with Dolarhyde as it happens. You have to hand it to the creators of this series – they have fantastic creative vision. They know how to create impact with all means open to them.
As is evident from my review, I am in this for or because of Armitage. But there were other things and scenes without Armitage that positively stood out for me. The dialogue in Hannibal is very clever and amusing. Dr Fred Chilton’s conversation with Hannibal had me grin from ear to ear. “Blood – and chocolate. That should’ve been the subtitle of my book. But I promised myself, I would never use colons in my titles. Colons lose their novelties when overused.” “You have to write another book.” “Hm. I am. But not about you. Like overused punctuation the novelty of Hannibal Lecter has waned.” Wonderfully sarcastic, intelligent humour. – I was also very taken with Will Graham as a person; frightened yet dutifully courageous. I loved how the film showed memories flashing through his mind – like countless snapshot images floating around him. – Lastly, the soundtrack. What a great score by Brian Reitzell. It adds this underlying sense of doom to the Dolarhyde scenes, and is so minutely matched to the action and movements of the characters, it feels integral to the action. There is a kind of Chinese feel to the Dolarhyde score, with gongs and crescendi drums as well as esoteric humming sounds that totally make my skin crawl. A score as it should be.
Horror will never be my favourite genre. Luckily Hannibal is not *quite* a horror show, I think. There is more in there than the cheap thrill-and-kill. The psychological dimension of the characters is always noticable – the redeeming feature of the show, imo. And a fantastic opportunity for Richard Armitage to meet a new challenge. He may have played “dragon sickness” before. But this is “dragon insanity”. The schizophrenia of Dolarhyde demands a whole new level of nuance from Armitage, in his face, in his body and in his speech, and he rises to the challenge more than aptly. It is very much to his advantage that he is not laden down with a Thorin-esque fur cloak (or half an artificial face for that matter) because he gets to show what he can do – he becomes Francis Dolarhyde, in all sorts of details. A Great Becoming, indeed. I can’t wait to see Armitage in the next episode.
Jump to my review of Hannibal 3×09 here.
Review of Hannibal 3×10 here.