James Keziah Delaney returns to 1814 London after 10 years in Africa to discover that he has been left a mysterious legacy by his father. Driven to wage war on those who have wronged him, Delaney finds himself in a face-off against the East India Company, whilst playing a dangerous game between two warring nations, Britain and America.
Imagine a man with the shaman-like charisma and borderline madness of Jim Morrison (at least as he was depicted in Oliver Stone’s film ‘The Doors’) but equipped with the vicious fighting skills of Wolverine. Add to that the intellect and strategic talents of Francis Underwood from ‘House of Cards’ as well as a – very large – dose of trauma induced mental problems (especially mother issues; well: some sister issues as well) – and you’ve almost got James Keziah Delaney (Tom Hardy), the central character of the new show ‘Taboo’. And let me tell you: he just so happens to be one of the most compelling and original protagonists I’ve seen in a TV-show since Ian McShane blessed us with the character of Al Swearengen in ‘Deadwood’ (ok, there was that other guy from that cooking show, you know: ‘Baking Bread’ or something like that – he was pretty singular too).
‘Taboo’ is certainly not an easy show to describe – it’s simply too unique for that – but let me have a go at it anyway. As with all my reviews, this is supposed to give you an overall impression of the show, so you won’t find any plot details here, although some very minor spoilers are possible. Please bear in mind that I’m a hopeless screen junkie who has long lost the ability to properly use language unless it’s in the context of film, so forgive me for constantly referencing other films and TV-shows in order to describe this series. If this grave condition of mine bothers you, you might want to stop reading now.
Still here? OK: imagine the dark, brooding atmosphere of ‘True Detective’ (I’m talking about the first season, of course) and transfer that mood to the city of London in 1814, at a time when the war between Britain and America is still going on but slowly nearing its end. Now further imagine that time period (candlelit rooms, horse carriages riding over cobblestones, fog rising from the river Thames and creeping through dark streets and busy docks) captured through the breathtakingly beautiful cinematography we usually find in a Ridley Scott film. Are you with me so far? Good. Because now that we’ve established the tone, mood and look of this show, we can explore the world of James Delaney a little further.
The end of the Anglo-American war is in sight, and as peace negotiations between the warring parties are secretly taking place, there’s a third major player involved who is scheming to protect its influence: the East India Company, one of the first – and perhaps most powerful – corporations in history. It’s this fascinating time of upheaval and secret battles for power in and around the New World which provides the backdrop for ‘Taboo’, and the show does an amazing job at transporting the audience to that era. This series features some of the best production design I’ve ever seen in a show (or a feature film, actually); everything looks lived-in and genuine; whether it be ships, houses, clothes or landscapes; every grimy cobble stone in every dimly lit alley virtually oozes authenticity.
When we first meet Delaney, he makes an entrance worthy of the Count of Monte Cristo. In case you don’t know the story, that’s the guy who was framed for a crime he didn’t commit and then locked away for so long everybody eventually thought he was dead – only to return one day, rich beyond imagination, and with an elaborate plan on how to take revenge on everyone that had wronged him. This theme of a guy returning from the dead with unexplained riches but a mysterious plan on his mind is sort of the starting point for ‘Taboo’ (but it’s only the starting point, so this isn’t a spoiler). As we soon find out, Delaney’s actually more like the Count of Monte Cristo’s disturbed, savage twin, for he does things Edmond Dantes (that’s the Count’s real name) probably couldn’t conceive of in his wildest dreams. Through his return – and by carrying out his plan – Delaney puts himself in the impossible position where he’s not only up against the sinister forces of the East India Company, but also against the British Crown as well as the Americans, and it will take all his cunning and every dirty trick and violent skill at his disposal for him to stay alive and protect his interests.
Thanks to Tom Hardy’s charismatic screen presence (and great writing), watching Delaney as he plots, threatens, kills, steals and hallucinates his way through this deadly game of chess is a thrilling joy and never less than compelling. Hardy creates the chilling portrait of a man who is haunted by the ghosts of his past; a man who seems to have one foot already firmly rooted in the afterlife and who communicates with the spirits of the dead – yet at the same time he’s a relentless force of nature who pursues his goals with unwavering determination. There are many reasons to enjoy ‘Taboo’: this dark tale of dark passions – and even darker secrets – is beautifully written (by Hardy Sr., Hardy Jr. and ‘Peaky Blinders’ creator Steven Knight); it’s gorgeous to look at (it was produced by Ridley Scott and shot by Scott’s frequent collaborator Mark Patten), and it features great performances by such prominent British thesps as Jonathan Pryce, David Hayman or Stephen Graham – but make no mistake: this is 100% Hardy’s show. The role of Delaney is tailor-made for him, and I honestly can’t imagine ‘Taboo’ working with any other actor.
So to sum up my review: I highly recommend ‘Taboo’ to every Tom Hardy fan, but anyone who likes their tales dark and twisted and doesn’t mind a somewhat deliberate pace (I’m talking to you, ‘True Detective’ fans) is equally well served – especially fans of original material. Great, unique television: 9 stars out of 10
Favorite TV-Shows reviewed: http://www.imdb.com/list/ls075552387/
Lesser-Known Masterpieces: imdb.com/list/ls070242495/
Favorite Low-Budget and B-Movies: imdb.com/list/ls054808375/