Taboo – “It’s a bit different”.
Judging from the title alone we can tell that there will be mixed reactions towards this series. I for one really enjoyed it. I’m a big fan of Steven Knight’s writing and I believe this series he has created with Tom and Edward “Chips” Hardy is nothing short of extraordinary.
The infamous James Keziah Delaney (Tom Hardy) returns to London in 1814 to attend his father’s funeral. He discovers that he has inherited a small piece of land called Nootka Sound, which is in the centre of a dispute between Britain and the USA. The leader of the East India Company Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce) had already established a deal with Zilpha Geary (Oona Chaplin) Delaney’s half sister for the ownership of this stretch of land for trading reasons. Delaney however stalls the deal after realizing how valuable this land will become after the war. Delaney must battle his own demons and prevent the East India Company from claiming his inheritance.
This series reminded me of a game of chess. There are so many different characters and sub plots linked into the overall narrative. We never quite know what Delaney is up to. All we know is he has a master plan and that he has “a use” for everyone. Similarly to Tommy Shelby in Knight’s Peaky Blinders. The good thing about this is we are left in suspense as to what is going to happen. The bad thing is we don’t really know what is going on or what the protagonist wants, not until the latter episodes at least. I certainly felt the episodes got better towards the end with an explosive finale and the potential to welcome an exciting second season.
Tom Hardy’s performance is incredible as a stomping, grunting anti-hero. You know you have a great protagonist when you can convince your audience to side with a shaman cannibal over a Prince Regent. Delaney is the definition of taboo. He steals from his dead father. He harbours an incestuous relationship with his half-sister. He is rumoured to eat human flesh. He even has an affiliation with the dead and has regular flashbacks to his mentally challenged mother as well as a crew of drowned slaves. However despite all of this we want him to win. We want him to out manoeuvre the Crown, the East India Trading Company and the Americans.
Visually Taboo is fantastic. London is macabre and gothic. The lower class characters look menacing, with dark features and filthy teeth. While the upper class characters display extravagant wealth. It emphasizes the extreme division between the rich and the poor, a subliminal undertone running throughout the narrative. The costumes are grimy and authentic. Delaney prowls about in a black double-breasted trench coat and a top hat, terrifying anyone who comes across him. There is a real sense of danger and discomfort throughout.
I found the dialogue a bit disappointing. Despite the theme of the poor versus the rich, both sides use foul-mouthed vocabulary. I found this amusing as I wouldn’t expect it from a period drama piece and it also made the characters seem more human and natural. However this doesn’t make up for the mumbling. The dialogue wasn’t really clear. I also found by the seventh episode I had become quite bored of Delaney’s interruptions and blunt one-liners, which do well to emphasize his brutish personality. However it prevents the dialogue from flowing freely.
The support cast were fantastic. Jonathan Pryce as Sir Strange and Jason Watkins as Solomon Coop were both excellent antagonists, representing the Company and the Crown respectively. I felt that Jessie Buckley played a strong female character as Lorna Bow. However quite why she got involved in her son-in-law’s deranged family drama baffles me, if I were her I would have stayed as far away from them as possible. Tom Hollander was my favourite character as the gun-powder-making chemist Dr George Cholmondeley. I found his excessive drinking and drug binges amusing while his sarcastic wit was endearing. I felt he deserved a bit more screen time. Oona Chaplin did well as Delaney’s half sister. She displayed a conundrum of emotions throughout and I thought her exorcism scene was particularly powerful. Eventually she is driven mad by her mixed feelings towards her brother as well as guilt for murdering her vile husband, so she commits suicide by throwing herself into the Thames. I hoped that Zilpha would have lasted longer as she was an important, tortured character and the main focus of Delaney’s intense desires. However it will be interesting to see how this will affect Delaney in the second season. If he is not already traumatized enough by the flashbacks to his mother trying to drown him, or the slaves he killed whispering in his ear.
Tom Hardy was given a lot of screen time; the camera predominantly focused on him for the whole series and his performance was great to watch. He certainly stole the show, however the supporting cast were given little opportunity to do so.
From the title alone we can tell this series isn’t for everyone. However I would highly recommend it and try to enjoy the bizarre lunacy of it all.