Was that as amazing for everyone else as it was for me? I still can’t say whether it was despite the fact or more because of the fact that there was essentially no dialogue involved, but wow- I couldn’t have been more impressed with our introduction to the NBC Hannibal’s version of the character of Francis Dolarhyde.
When I first listened to the source material, the audiobook version of The Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, I knew that this role would be unlike anything Richard Armitage has ever done. It all comes down to the little boy, the small Francis, known to himself as “Cunt-Face”, born with a severe cleft palate and whose mother promptly abandoned to an orphanage, left to the mercies of an apathetic system and the cruelties of the pack. Young Francis Dolarhyde, whose Grandmother later retrieved him not to offer him unconditional love and a home with family, but as a means to torment her daughter and flaunt the imperfect child as a failure, a fly in the ointment of the new “perfect family” life his mother hoped to have. The boy’s story is both infuriating because simple human decency would have made all the difference, and terrifying, as you experience Grandmother’s methods… I think this excerpt from the book illustrates nicely the type of villain we have in the evil old woman, who Francis sees as his saviour and strives so ineffectually to please:
Francis Dolarhyde, five years old, lay in bed in his upstairs room in Grandmother’s house. The room was pitch dark with its blackout curtains against the Japanese. He could not say “Japanese.” He needed to pee. He was afraid to get up in the dark.
He called to his grandmother in bed downstairs.
“Aayma. Aayma.” He sounded like an infant goat.
He called until he was tired. “Mleedse Aayma.”
It got away from him then, hot on his legs and under his seat, and then cold, his nightdress sticking to him.
He didn’t know what to do. He took a deep breath and rolled over to face the door. Nothing happened to him. He put his foot on the floor. He stood up in the dark, nightdress plastered to his legs, face burning. He ran for the door. The doorknob caught him over the eye and he sat down in wetness, jumped up and ran down the stairs, fingers squealing on the banister.
To his grandmother’s room. Crawling across her in the dark and under the covers, warm against her now.
Grandmother stirred, tensed, her back hardened against his cheek, voice hissing. “I’ve never sheen…….”
A clatter on the bedside table as she found her teeth, clacket as she put them in. “I’ve never seen a child as disgusting and as dirty as you. Get out, get out of this bed.”
She turned on the bedside lamp. He stood on the carpet shivering. She wiped her thumb across his eyebrow.
Her thumb came away bloody.
“Did you break something?”
He shook his head so fast droplets of blood fell on Grandmother’s nightgown.
“Upstairs. Go on.”
The dark came down over him as he climbed the stairs. He couldn’t turn on the lights because Grandmother had cut the cords off short so only she could reach them. He did not want to get back in the wet bed. He stood in the dark holding onto the footboard for a long time. He thought she wasn’t coming. The blackest corners in the room knew she wasn’t coming.
She came, snatching the short cord on the ceiling light, her arms full of sheets. She did not speak to him as she changed the bed.
She gripped his upper arm and pulled him down the hall to the bathroom. The light was over the mirror and she had to stand on tiptoe to reach it. She gave him a washcloth, wet and cold.
“Take off your nightshirt and wipe yourself off.”
Smell of adhesive tape and the bright sewing scissors clicking. She snipped out a butterfly of tape, stood him on the toilet lid and closed the cut over his eye.
“Now,” she said. She held the sewing scissors under his round belly and he felt cold down there.
“Look,” she said. She grabbed the back of his head and bent him over to see his little penis lying across the bottom blade of the open scissors. She closed the scissors until they began to pinch him.
“Do you want me to cut it off?”
He tried to look up at her, but she gripped his head. He sobbed and spit fell on his stomach.
“No, Aayma. No Aayma.”
“I pledge you my word, if you ever make your bed dirty again I’ll cut it off. Do you understand?”
“You can find the toilet in the dark and you can sit on it like a good boy. You don’t have to stand up. Now go back to bed.”
So yes, as we are drawn into the past by Harris’ narrative, it is impossible not to empathize with this tormented child. I was absolutely confident that Armitage would feel it, too, as he prepared for the role, and I have known that we would have an opportunity to feast upon psychological nuances heretofore not seen in other characters portrayed by Armitage: a deeply damaged child. What was so rewarding to me, then, was that without any actual dialogue, Richard Armitage’s portrayal of Francis Dolarhyde was unbelievably spot on in bringing that vulnerability out to play.
Like anyone else watching, I was mesmerized by the opening sequences that show Dolarhyde deep in his own skin, twitching and flexing and undulating as he indulges in his inner tumultuous transformation, seeking respite from the inadequacies of a lifetime by creating something fierce and powerful and otherworldly in the form of The Great Red Dragon he will unleash.
These scenes were fascinating, and breathtaking in their way, and very effective in inspiring the sort of fear and awe that the monster requires. They also very adeptly set up the paradoxical situation in which we are meant to view Francis Dolarhyde- that despite a craniofacial defect, a fractured psyche, and decidedly abhorrent urges, he still possesses attributes that we can find alluring. He has a beautiful body that he hones, and as we will see later, he has at least a corner of decency and even innocence somewhere on the inside, a part of him that abhors what he is “Becoming” when it threatens to destroy the one beautiful and wholesome thing in his life.
Yet, as gorgeous as those scenes were… for me, the true brilliance in our introduction to Francis Dolarhyde took place in front of the broken mirror, as Francis stood with a heartbreaking combination of determination and self-contempt, practicing speech sounds. There in front of the mirror, visibly gathering his resolve to try again, we see little, almost involuntary helpless gestures with hands. We see him lift his chin a notch. We see his chest rising and falling. We see him flinch, and scowl, and viciously smack himself with brutal committment as he repeatedly tries to say something, though what it is he tries to say, I’m still not sure. Armitage beautifully channels the damaged, chastised child here, and it was mesmerizing to behold.
Again I saw the little boy in the scrapbooking scene. Something in the way Francis hastily cuts out the article, then carries his book with almost child-like reverence, to the table. I loved how he takes a moment to view the picture of himself as a young boy with Grandmother, then turns it over/brushes it aside with impatient disgust, and begins slapping the glue and articles into the scrapbook almost haphazardly. Quite the contrast from Hannibal’s treatment of the same article, so precisely and elegantly handled as he prepares to send his greetings to Will Graham. Francis, on the other hand, is comparatively clumsy in his work, knocking over a container of pens, and scribbling over the moniker “Tooth Fairy” with the messy desperation of a frustrated youth. Here is this 40-something man, but he just channels that which is unschooled, leaving his vulnerabilities on the table.
Anyway, if a few short scenes, some tortured noises, some postures of damaged psyche and child-like behavior patterns can have already softened me toward this monster, it’s looking like the introduction of the love story with Reba will be that much more difficult to “square with reality” when it comes to Francis Dolarhyde. Richard Armitage has nailed it so far, and absolutely left me craving more.
Congratulations, Richard! It was a stunning debut on U.S. Network television. =)