TABOO – Episodes 1-3

Directed by Kristoffer Nyholm  Starring Tom Hardy

A crowd in London, circa 1814 gathers to bury a man everyone knew, but it seems, who was roundly despised. We’ve already seen a mysterious figure take the two pence from the corpe’s eyes, muttering a few ominous words. Now that same man, played by Tom Hardy, enters the funeral in progress to gasps and shocked looks. He’s the son of the deceased. He’s been missing a decade, presumed dead. A stricken young woman leans in and manages to say: “They said you were dead!” “I am.” He replies, without missing a beat. Whatever he is, he’s brought back strange rituals and words and is recognizable to those that know him but is in fact, an entirely different creature than the one presumed drowned at sea.

We’ve been fans since Handsome Bob in RockNRolla, but to most audiences Tom Hardy achieved name recognition as iconic, unintelligible Bane in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. He then leapfrogged that milestone with name recognition of a more prestigious kind as Max in Mad Max: Fury Road, his Oscar nominated work in The Revenant and in singular recent performances in Locke & The Drop. Hardy has been busy. And along the way, he’s carved out time, creative energy and ownership to bring Taboo to fruition. Directing for the first three episodes is by Kristoffer Nyholm (the wonderful Danish TV series Forbrydelsen/The Killing). 

This is a busy actor in a rare position: he likely has his pick of good scripts and the full attention of top directors who can no doubt imagine him shape shifting into almost any hero, antihero or character actor. This versatility is the truest and the rarest of actorly strengths: he’s good looking but not afraid to get ugly and has mastered the secrets of physicality that is the domain of the stage actor and of the true real life survivor and it means he should never again want for work. So it’s striking that an actor in this position would take on the risk and responsibility of creating a new television show as star and producer, a fact that is noteworthy and rather impressive. It becomes less surprising after five or ten frames when it becomes abundantly clear that no matter how many diverse skins Hardy has inhabited, creating new film icons, even, none has fit him so well and so cleanly as James.

And yet, Taboo’s world is one of filth, soot, slop and back alleys of London. This is a rare project that takes pains to show the unseemliness and unromantic side of what life in the late 1700s was like. It was syphilitic royalty and bad teeth and overfed evil businessmen and starving dogs, and an era where showering was feared as something that carried risks and shied away from for most of the year. It may not sound appealing, but it is, for this is not the usual England of the opulent costume drama that verges on bourgeoisie pornography, innately and quietly selling the audience aspirational crass propaganda with modern looking starlets whose faces don’t move, rather the background of this story is quickly laid down with layers of grit and dust and bloody knuckles that look real.

The gentleman’s finery of this brutal England- if one can afford it- is just candy wrapping atop a stained, lonely nightshirt that knows the midnight secrets of a man in torment. The layers come off James in this way, gradually, until he’s naked, revealing strange tribal tattoos and scarification, endless dark stories we fear to know, and he’s bare in a way that is disturbing, not sexual, but stark: he’s scrubbing the stains of death and slavery from the floorboards of a clipper ship, and he’s at one with the ghosts, significantly and deliberately not protected by the layers of Englishness and Empire that made such horrors possible. Horrors we know he was once a part of before he knew better. The heights of elite business and the willfull ignorance that allowed people to enjoy their block of sweet sugar, belies the blood and savagery of these white men and the lives tossed away to get such luxuries on English plates. And it seems James, one way or another, has found life in the otherworldiness of whatever the hell he’s survived. 

 It is a stunning, riveting sequence that touches the heart of anyone who’s studied and read on the Colonial age, and who views The Empire and The East India Company through the lens of Post-Colonial equity, grief and empathetic anger at the impossibity of reparations for genocide; for the immeasurable human suffering of the “uncivilized” savages. And we haven’t even stepped foot in a jungle yet. But know, this series works exceedingly well on the basis of solid entertainment for non Lit majors as well. It’s not political, it’s not preachy. Delaney is rogue, a man on his own mission who cannot be bought, the kind of man that has carried many of the most compelling stories in literature, film and TV for all time. And for us Lit majors, especially who’ve studied Post-Colonialism, it’s a very rare treat indeed.

Tom Hardy is here in the realm of television when he’s also at the top of the film game on two continents because this is where his project took him and where it will be best appreciated. It is visual, artistic, and scenic gold. It needs to be pored over, watched and rewatched and recapped and obsessed over, is that rarest of productions in any medium where the set design and cinematography are richer and deeper than an acid trip, the rooms so layered that the search for an essential treaty is one the audience wants to jump in and dig through drawers to find. It’s The East India Company’s ugly beating heart with a U-shaped conference table suggesting a slaver’s dreadful tool of control, and where then man at the center of that table pours three perfectly brewed cups of tea out of a silver service, to be lined up all for himself. Don’t let this show be lost amid any network slate, other shows that have more familiarity, or the careless view of the mobile phone. Sit and watch it on the biggest screen you can and marvel that art lives and breathes anytime enough smart talents come together to make it.

We’ve been inside James Delaney’s mind, a place haunted and gifted somehow with visions that frighten and protect him, the vivid dead rising who he must tell “I have no fear left” and still they come, hints and more than hints about the darkest rumours and actions one can accuse a man of doing against other human beings, and yet we are on his side, firmly and fully, because of his skill as an actor that defies trickery and pushes boundaries of what’s likable. It’s always out there on the edge of danger, of fear, it feels real. Delaney’s shown some of his teeth by episode three, but only reluctantly, through a studied self-control, and through a series of conflicts and negotiations that regularly require tiny mannered turf wars, contracts, documents getting tossed in the fire as a firm response, money being offered and spread around, maps being drawn and speculated upon, espionage, horse theft, payoffs and claims on his life. And this occurs as he carries on legitimate business over a few weeks in his home city. His business is simple and straightforward, shocking and unheard of and that’s vengeance, or revenge, or justice, with a side of forbidden love. We can’t tear ourselves away.

Further Taboo Reviews to follow in intervals after episode 6 (covering 4-6) and 8, the finale (covering 7-8).

Jacqueline Howell