Hannibal Double Take

“Hannibal” is more “Manhunter” (1986) than “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991), and although this may displease avid fans of the Academy Award-winning film, discerning viewers with a taste for retro cinematic stylization may find that NBC’s new thriller is just what the doctor ordered.

Hugh Dancy (best known for being married to actress Claire Danes) brings not-quite-FBI “special investigator” Will Graham to stunning life in a captivating performance as the troubled profiler. Every now and then, Dancy’s Graham feels a bit like a plaintive Hugh Jackman, but that’s easily forgiven thanks to the actor’s keen ability to convey the ill-at-ease social awkwardness of a brilliant man coping with his own existence somewhere along the autistic and sociopathic spectra (Graham claims he lies closer to Asperger’s disorder and narcissism, respectively.) Dancy’s endearing, pathetic boyishness is doubly-pointed: we feel sorry for Graham, while at the same time we are startled by his sometimes over-eager insight into the demonic imaginations of the monsters he hunts — and with whom he can empathize.

Most refreshing is that the interpersonal tension and professional repartee between Graham and his new psychiatrist-handler, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, which has none of the hypersexualized, comicbook gratuity of the infamous Lecter-Starling relationship. The result is a terse, serious exchange between two men catching killers, unspoiled by needless gristle.

The series’s treatment of Lecter plays on the assumption that “Hannibal the Cannibal” does not require a spoiler alert — but although the viewers know, their refined sensibilities are not insulted by a villainous Anthony Hopkins impersonator. The main course of suspense is offered up by “Casino Royale” veteran Mads Mikkelsen, the “sexiest man in Denmark” whose quiet, precise manner and delicate enunciation always seem just below the level of threat. We are at least meant to think Lecter is the “Minnesota Shrike” copycat, and that his motives include playing the muse to Graham’s perverse genius — the ruthless new murders do indeed tease greater investigatory skills out of Graham while simultaneously pushing him ever-closer to the edge. Mikkelsen’s Lecter refuses to play-act evil, and the result is an uncannily natural performance that is fresh, rare and (perhaps most disturbingly) very human.

Like “Manhunter,” Hannibal is terrifying because it seems to take place in the real world; this is not the pornographically violent fantasyscape of “Dexter’s” Miami complete with Daniel Licht’s Elfman-inspired score lilting playfully in the background, nor does it recreate the “Arkham Asylum” inspired aesthetic of “Silence” (recall the slanted “Dutch” camera angle reminiscent of the campy “Batman” TV series on Hopkins’ Lecter, clad in stark white prison uniform, gaping mouth painted red with human blood) that was more a Joker pantomime than anything else. This is a world in which a main protagonist (who is not Clark Kent, despite the glasses) perpetually wearing wrinkled plaid shirts is neither pretentiously hipster nor passé — this is a world we can imagine unsettlingly close to home, a world we know.

Graham’s method evokes William Petersen’s portrayal in “Manhunter” down to the last detail: Graham examines a crime scene, mechanically moving in reverse-motion until he can mentally experience the violent act itself; Graham visualizes the machinations of murder, narrating methodically the deadly choreography of killing as he reluctantly (but entirely) enters the perpetrator’s mind. Like the serial killers he’s tracking, Graham himself gets lost in the morbid ecstasy of the moment; he provocatively leaves a calling card, a sort of signature after reliving the kill: “This is my design.” Will Graham may be the most terrifying mind of the series — he’s undeniably (albeit fearfully) heroic, but perhaps not the sort of man you’d have over for dinner.