Tom Hardy’s Taboo is an utterly grim and gripping work of intense art. The BBC historical drama was not universally admired when it came out and there were reports that it set back its star by a couple of millions. However, on finally catching up with it, I can say that I was deeply impressed, both by its lead star as well as by the darkly enthralling screenplay.
Hardy plays James Keziah Delaney who comes back from the dead into 1814 London to spook everyone he sets his path across. Declared missing and probably dead when a slave ship sank somewhere off the coast of Africa, he has in fact been honing his skills at the dark arts in the continent before arriving back to claim his inheritance and settle old scores. His home, which housed his recently deceased father and a grumpy but seemingly loyal old manservant, is straight out of the Gothic handbook. Huge, cavernous and with rooms stuffed full of secrets best laid buried, Delaney plants himself there as he goes about his affairs in the seedy society he has come back to. It’s a society as shocked by his return as by the stories and legend of his practise of the dark arts he learnt in his time away.
This is a city and, in fact, world which has its fortunes closely aligned with the British monarchy and the East India Company. The company is baring its tentacles now at Delaney and his inheritance. For, the most substantial inheritance of his is a strip of land along the West Coast of America, the Nootka Sound, one which is proving to be of huge strategic importance to both the Crown and to the Americans. But Delaney is not about to play an easy patriot for the Crown or Company and will make them sweat for the land they crave and which was initially supposed to be worthless. What are his motives though? His mother, who before passing on had been incarcerated in an institution for the mentally insane by his father, was a native of the tribe there and was in fact part of a ‘deal’ his father had made. So, is it sentiment driving him? Or is he just cold, calculated hardnose looking for the best deal for himself? Both options are alluded to throughout the series, but mostly his motives remain shrouded in enigma. He is willing to talk to the Americans who have infiltrated normal London life in the guise of informers and spies, in search of a deal for himself, but keeps them at an arm’s length for the most part. The same goes for his relationships with others who he has acquainted himself with since returning. There is the charming lady, an actress, who claims to be his father’s last wife and thus a possible claimant of the inheritance (Jessie Buckley), who in initially appears to be an antagonist to Delaney, but, as she herself becomes a threat to the East India Company, soon aligns herself with him and develops a tentative and tender bond with him. There maybe an illegitimate chile involved, who he recruits to the cause, as well as another child, Winter, the progeny of the prostitute who was renting one of Delaney’s joints as a makeshift brothel. A chemist and conjurer is taken into his employ for his expertise in producing gunpowder from limited means.
The most intriguing relationship is with his estranged half-sister, Zilphy, played by Oona Chaplin. Now married to a thoroughly unlikeable man, it is obvious from the off that the bond she and Delaney shared prior to his disappearance went beyond the bounds of sibling intimacy. As with a lot of things, it’s not alluded to explicitly, but flashes of dialog and dream meanderings bring the story to light.
The primary antagonist here is Sir Stuart Strange, a high-ranking member of the company, played with devious alacrity by an in-form Jonathan Pryce. As the company manoeuvres around the intricacies of territory and possessions in a potentially explosive time, Delaney and Strange match wits. Their relationship is another which has tentacles coiling into the past and an illicit slave ship which defined Delaney’s destiny and which has the potential yet to define Strange’s. It’s all set up for a bloody finale as Delaney and his band attempt to make their ways across the seas and away from the claws of crown and king. But how many will fall to the darkness within Delaney in the meantime? Will he survive his own dark soul?
It’s all about the mood setting here. If you are one who enjoys these kind of tales set in Victorian (or roundabout that time) era London with brooding, strapping men in perfectly poised top hats, and women of both delicacy and tact, who are also capable of a mean streak within, you would probably lose yourself completely in this. But, even apart from the Gothic genre it gives vibes of, this is a masterful work. And no-one does brooding, gruff gentlemen of questionable intentions as Tom Hardy. This is the kind of role he is born for and no one can carry off that hat and coat like him. As with another alumnus from Nolan’s Batman universe, Christian Bale, he is an actor right at home in these outings, but this one obviously meant more, considering his own personal stake in the series. I wonder if Bale or Hardy will ever do a little rom-com, just to give us a glimpse of their prowess there. It would be worth a watch for sure.
This series is a riveting fusion of gloom and doom with some intriguing early nineteenth century politics thrown in. The direction and screenplay are mostly spot on and keep us hooked. The entire enigma behind Delaney and his time away is never spelt out for us. There are constant allusions to his dark secrets and an animal, bestial instinct within him, as well as an underexplored but fascinating undercurrent of a potentially destructive relationship with his stepsister. But for viewers preferring more mellow stuff, it may not be a great idea to take in this series. For the rest, it’s a must watch.