Disgusting, camp, beautiful: Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal is an overlooked gem

<span>Photograph: NBC</span>
Photograph: NBC

With a heightened aesthetic and a standout performance from Mads Mikkelsen, this unsettling show leans into the homoeroticism – and into the ham

Unlike the unending and tedious debate over who is the best Bond, there is no argument when it comes to the best Hannibal Lecter: it is Mads Mikkelsen. Anthony Hopkins’s overripe performance remains firm in the minds of many, but Mikkelsen is truly brilliant in Bryan Fuller’s strange and excellent show, having had the luxury of 36 hours of telly to transform Hannibal the Cannibal into something beyond a bogeyman.

In fact, it takes a while for Hannibal’s toothy side to truly come out in the TV adaptation, which aired between 2013 and 2015. Here, he is a serial killer successfully disguised as a harmless and prissy European oddball, and regarded as a respected psychiatrist in Baltimore. Fuller chooses to focus equally on the cat to his mouse – or the mouse to his cat – Will Graham (played by Hugh Dancy), a prickly and vulnerable profiler tasked by the FBI to help them hunt murderers. Despite being too “unstable” to work as an official agent, Graham is uniquely talented at his gruesome work, so Hannibal is discretely hired by FBI big cheese Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) to keep an eye on his mental health while he does his extremely traumatising day job.

Like Bond, most people know Hannibal by mononym alone; we all know about his unique palate going in, but everyone around him (most of whom have attended one of his dinner parties) does not. “Before we begin, you must all be warned – nothing here is vegetarian,” Hannibal announces at the beginning of a dinner, with great aplomb; the fun comes from knowing that meat is the least of his guests’ worries.

The suspense instead comes from the episodic murders Graham is tasked with solving, and his slow realisation that there is more to his psychiatrist than meets the eye. As he tells a doubtful Crawford: “You and I probably sipped wine while swallowing the people who we were trying to give justice, Jack.”

Much like Fuller’s other shows Pushing Daisies and American Gods, Hannibal has a heightened aesthetic, dialled up to ridiculous. Everything is rich: the colours, the foods, the clothing, the sounds. It all looks lush, while also being unsettling: Hannibal’s dining room, as an example, is often decorated with pomegranates and porcupine quills, inserted by the show’s food stylist to trigger a sense of danger and trypophobia. All this muchness – under a cacophonous soundtrack from composer Brian Reitzell, mashing up everything from theremins to gamelan – leaves you feeling, just like Will Graham, that you may be losing your mind.

Much like the show’s aesthetic, Mikkelsen’s angular face veers between freaky and beautiful depending on the shot. Hannibal’s unnerving blankness could be mistaken for an absence of acting, but that’s not it at all: if you’ve seen the Danish actor in Another Round or The Hunt, you know he’s remarkable. On each of the three times I’ve watched the series, I have noticed more subtle details of his performance; the film that develops over Hannibal’s shark-like eyes when he is being careful, the furious twitch of a little finger betraying his great anger, the hint of a delighted smile at Will. It may be apocryphal that Mikkelsen, who has since starred in every Hollywood franchise going, learned much of his English skills from reading Hannibal scripts. Either way, he’s as good here as he is in most things, and clearly having a helluva time, delivering lines like “You tried to kill me, Will – it is hard not to take that personally” with amusing restraint.

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Hannibal is Dancy’s show too. Up until now, he has mostly been wasted in forgettable romcoms or playing pretty toffs in costume dramas; as Graham, he is snarky, wounded and utterly compelling. Mikkelsen and Dancy share a uniquely charged chemistry and thankfully the show doesn’t ignore it (despite being made by a major American network that, at one point, asked for more blood to be added to a murder scene to cover a butt crack). Hannibal leans into the homoeroticism of a story about a man killing an incredible number of people just to make another man understand him more. “Is Hannibal in love with me?” Graham asks in one episode; by then, both he and you know the answer.

On occasion the show can be hammier than anything Hannibal is cooking, but that’s part of the joy. After all, Hannibal the Cannibal is a inherently ridiculous creation – it would be weirder to make a po-faced series about a snobby serial killer who gleefully dances around the FBI and enjoys a bit of heart tartare. Instead, we get moments like Hannibal serving a man his own leg, candied and studded with sugar cane skewers. A totem pole made of dead bodies, anyone? How about a council worker used as a trellis for a tree, his tasty organs replaced with flowers? Really, it’s a wonder Hannibal made it to three seasons: it was weird, it was gross, it was very queer. But we must savour that it got to exist at all.