Written by Cameron Wilson.
If 2017 saw the continued dominance of heavy hitters of TV drama, it also saw the emergence of new players on the scene. HBO’s Westworld, my personal favourite of 2017, proved a hit and Netflix continued to go from strength to strength with shows like 13 Reasons Why. But one compelling series that emerged was the Ridley Scott-produced, Tom Hardy-created Taboo.
The story takes place in 1814 London where Horace Delaney has suddenly died. He leaves nothing of noteworthy value for his children except a piece of land called Nootka Sound, currently contested by the Americans and the British after the War of 1812. At Horace’s funeral, who should turn up but the long-lost son James (Tom Hardy) to complicate matters for his sister, played by Oona Chaplin. Yes, granddaughter to that other famous Chaplin!
Due to his decade-long absence, under the presumption of death, his sudden appearance is a surprise and the McGuffin that sets the plot in motion. When James claims what is bequeathed to him in his father’s will, he is then called upon by the chairman of the East India Company, Sir Stuart Strange (the always watchable Jonathan Pryce), who offers him a high price for the disputed land.
When James turns down the offer, and in a much less than polite way tells them to go forth and multiply, he sets in motion a private war between himself, the Crown and the United States.
Throughout the eight-episode series there are a host of memorable characters including an American spy, a brothel madam and a scribe for Sir Stuart who at night becomes a transvestite, masquerading as what can only be described as a Georgian drag queen. But why exactly is the show called Taboo? Doesn’t it sound an awful lot like other series and films?
I would counter this by asking, have you seen that plotlines include influences of African tribal magic, unhealthy amounts of incest and a gunpowder plot? These elements aren’t brushed aside either; they form essential elements of the plot. Sure, Game of Thrones has incest, but Taboo has incest in a church (and incest by telepathy, don’t ask). Taboo by title, even more so taboo by nature.
Where Taboo succeeds triumphantly is in rendering early 19th century England in all its disgusting reality. The dirt and grime of the period is perfectly captured, with settings like open sewers, muddy roads, and corpses (both in morgues and on the banks of the Thames) viscerally depicting the putrid conditions of the times. The plot consistently moves forward at a healthy pace, with new characters, subplots and revelations in each episode being introduced in a way that feels organic. The plot of the series grows naturally, without the addition of cheap gimmicks. The characters and story are the main drawcards here, succeeding on their own merit. With that said, the production values are stellar, with only minor criticisms being directed at the rare use of CGI. Unfortunately, because CGI is used so rarely, it sticks out very clearly when poor CGI is used. Many large budget films have this same issue, so for Taboo to avoid it as often as it does is impressive.
Delaney himself lives a comfortable lifestyle, with a house, a loyal butler, David Hayman in a marvellously subtle performance, and an unending stream of money at his disposal. Despite all this, Delaney also mingles with the worst of London’s characters, getting dirty, bloody and bruised himself in his efforts to keep his land and profits. No night in the slums of London would be complete without many corpses with multiple stab wounds. Not even Tom Hardy himself is invincible, as his character bears the brunt of London’s worst characters on more than one occasion. It is this intermingling between the classes that prevents him from being a completely detestable villain. He has people important to him in his life, people he genuinely cares about, people he mourns for as the series progresses.
But don’t be mistaken into thinking that the show is called Taboo because of some film of grime smeared across the lens of the camera. No, this is a very dark series. There are scenes of outrageous violence, where characters use their bare hands to brutally and shockingly choke the life out of their enemies. Scenes of marital abuse are not uncommon, as well as other horrific acts like rape and torture. But what makes this series gripping to watch is Tom Hardy, who continues to demonstrate that he is an exceptionally gifted performer, who will take on projects others would call ‘taboo’. He brings a certain gravitas to this series which makes him compelling to watch: be it the tiny inflections in his expressions, his eyes which say more than words, or, his towering dominance over almost every character. A well-deserved mention goes to cinematographer Mark Patten who, it must be said, knows how to truly bring tension and suspense through lighting alone. Additionally, it would be criminal not to send Mark Gatiss some praise for his turn as George IV. Watching King George gorge himself on a chicken drumstick with all its juices and strips hanging can only be described as a despicable pleasure.
Taboo is a slow burn of a series, but much like the gunpowder plot, it starts with a spark and ends with a bang.