5 Takeaways From Tom Hardy’s Taboo
Anyone heard of Tom Hardy? He’s kind of a big deal. While bonafide movie stars are becoming a rarer commodity these days, Hardy is at least thought of in Hollywood as a reliable leading man. Which always makes it interesting when he picks the most unusual of projects. Say hello to Taboo, the story of a mysterious anti-hero returning to Georgian London with unknown intent.
It’s a TV miniseries which makes some interesting creative choices. At its centre is Tom Hardy’s James Delaney, a son returned from Africa with a dark past. If you’re tantalised or turned off by this synopsis, you probably already know if you’re going to like it. If not let me help you along. Here’s 5 things you need to know about Taboo.
1. James Delaney is a Bad Dude
Look, we’re not saying Delaney is an out and out villain. He’s a guy who’s seen and done some bad shit – so far, mostly implied. Stealing the shillings covering your dead father’s eyes, then using it for the collection at his funeral? That’s a self aware level of jerk. Still, he’s also got people he cares about, and so far his real goals are impenetrable.
Does he want his father’s tiny pocket of land in America? Or is his quest about his Native American mother (more on that in a minute)?
Taboo comes in part from writer Stephen Knight, creator of BBC crime saga Peaky Blinders. Comparisons between Delaney and Peaky Blinders’ Thomas Shelby are imperfect but useful. Both have opaque machinations, and neither have clean hands as their stories begin.
2. The Past is a Shit Place to Live
You watched Downton Abbey, didn’t you? Admit it. You watched it and thought ‘Hey, Britain in the past must have been such a fancy place to live.’
Wrong. For nearly everyone in British history the past was an endless slog of fighting in damp, miserable fields for some ungrateful lord or being forced to grovel to the nearest feudal Baron. Taboo knows this. The London we find in Taboo is drenched in dark, earthy tones and the streets are full of poor people toiling away.
This is the past shot from the ground up. When Delaney visits the old offices of his father’s company he finds it’s been turned into a brothel. They never told you about that sort of thing on Upstairs Downstairs, did they?
3. There’s Some Political Machinations
James Delaney’s just inherited a scrap of land in America. Everyone tells him it’s worthless. The equivalent of the bit behind the back of America’s fridge. In fact it has massive value to international diplomacy and a cabal of rich men are desperate to have it.
I say cabal. Actually it’s just the top brass at the East India Company, a powerful government approved corporation which at the time ruled much of India on behalf of the British Crown. They want Delaney’s land because somewhere along the way it will let them stick it to the Americans, Who Britain’s at war with. Among this state sanctioned cabal are Jonathan Pryce (The High Sparrow from Game of Thrones) and Roger Ashton-Griffiths (Mace Tyrell from Game of Thrones). Formidable enemies indeed.
4. There might be supernatural goings on
At his father’s funeral Delaney doesn’t join in during the reading of the Lord’s Prayer. At the grave site he whispers in an unknown tongue and sprinkles coloured powder at the casket. Spread through the episode Delaney suffers from either a series of supernatural visions or some pretty disturbing hallucinations.
There’s a mysterious woman in a lake, the corpse of a slave come back to life. Are these just phantoms of Delaney’s mind, or has he been dabbling in the paranormal? At several points Delaney claims to have been speaking to his father when they were thousands of miles apart. Today we call that Skype. In 1815 it’s with magic or lies. All I know is Delaney’s in to some sinister stuff.
5. We need to talk about the Problems
As much as I’m liking Taboo so far, I have a couple of major worries. Let me explain.
We’re told in this opening episode Delaney’s mother was Native American – part of the same tribe who sold his father the land which is now causing people a lot of bother. To my knowledge Tom Hardy has no Native American Heritage, but the ethics of ethnic miscasting aren’t even my biggest worry.
Am I jumping to conclusions to fear that Delaney’s Native American heritage might be tied to all the implied supernatural stuff? Delaney was supposed to have been in Africa for many years, so perhaps that continent is the source of his visions. But if so, doesn’t this open up a different set of questions about cultural appropriation and stereotyping?
One episode in, it would be foolish to extract definitive meaning from such things. I’m hopeful this part of Taboo’s story doesn’t end up where I worry it might. It’s not a perfect show – there’s a serious deficit of female characters so far – but there’s some solid storytelling to be had here.
Taboo airs in the UK Saturdays on BBC One, and on Tuesdays on FX in the US from January 10.