Emmy spotlight: Cower before Richard Armitage (‘Hannibal’), the great Red Dragon

richard armitage hannibal red dragon francis dolarhyde tooth fairy nbc emmy

I wrote two years ago about the second season of “Hannibal” and why Emmy voters should have nominated it for all the awards. Well, they didn’t nominate it for any of the awards, even in Creative Arts categories like cinematography or art direction, where it should have been a no-brainer. The third and final season of the cult hit aired last summer on NBC, and all my praise for season two still applies, but I’d like to focus particular attention on one new standout: Richard Armitage as serial killer Francis Dolarhyde, aka the Red Dragon.

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So yes, you should nominate Hugh Dancy, Mads Mikkelsen, Gillian Anderson, writer/creator Bryan Fuller, one or more directors and as many below-the-line craft professionals as possible. But let’s talk about Armitage.

Like many other actors on the show he had big shoes to fill. The Red Dragon, infamous for his deadly home invasions and delusions of transformation, is well known as the title character of Thomas Harris‘s 1981 novel. He had also been portrayed twice before on-screen: by Tom Noonan in “Manhunter” (1986) and later by Ralph Fiennes in “Red Dragon” (2002).

But like his co-stars, Armitage gives a performance all his own. It’s a carefully balanced turn: Dolarhyde has a split personality, one half an insecure wallflower and the other half a monster out of nightmares. But Armitage makes us believe that both personas could exist in one man — more than that, that each persona fuels the other.

But even knowing what we know about his alter ego’s horrific crimes, his Dolarhyde is sympathetic, fragile even. He has a cleft lip, which affects his speech and leaves him with crippling shyness; he speaks and moves as if apologizing for the space he occupies. Then he meets a film developer, Reba (“True Blood” alum Rutina Wesley), who is blind and thus eases his self-consciousness. The tender scenes between Armitage and Wesley have a dual tension: of course we fear for Reba’s life, but we’re also hopeful for Reba’s loving influence on him.

It’s impressive that “Hannibal” and its actors were able to create such human scenes and relationships alongside the unparalleled horrors of its murder stories, but Armitage has the added challenge of trying to pull it off in one character.

As the Red Dragon, the actor has to go toe-to-toe with Mikkelsen and Dancy as Hannibal Lecter and FBI profile Will Graham, respectively, and he’s more than fearsome enough to hold his ground. More than perhaps any other villain in the show’s entire run, he channels a demonic rage that is downright otherworldly. Standing six-foot-two, Armitage has an imposing physical presence; with Reba he seems to cower in that height, but as the Dragon he towers with menace. To think, this is the same actor who played the diminutive dwarf Thorin for three years in the “Hobbit” films; seeing the two characters side by side, you’d never know it’s the same actor.

Armitage has already picked up a Critics’ Choice bid for his performance as Dolarhyde. An Emmy nomination should follow.

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Photo credits: “Hannibal” by NBC

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