Establishing a brooding, insidious tone from the opening frames, writer-director Steven Knight’s (Locke, Peaky Blinders) eight-part mini-series Taboo looks set to break tradition from the typical framework of British period drama. Co-produced by the BBC and FX, and co-written and created by lead actor Tom Hardy, and his father Chips, this enigmatic and alarming new show brings plentiful suspicion, mystery, and malice.
The pilot episode – directed by Danish master Kristoffer Nyholm, who’ll carry the first half of the season – introduces our beguiling protagonist: an Englishman named James Keziah Delaney (Hardy), who returns to a dirty, drab 19th Century London after a decade’s spell in Africa. Presumed dead, Delany arrives in the British Capital in the wake of his father’s passing; a man society had come to believe was mentally unstable. His surprise appearance at the funeral throws a wrench in the plans of his estranged half sister Zilpha (Oona Chaplin), and her husband Thorne Geary (Jefferson Hall), as well as the machinations of the East India Trading Company, led by the formidable Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce).
Anchored by an assortment of delicious performances, Taboo sets weighty markers for its forthcoming episodes. We know so little about our leading man – a presence utterly submerged in secrecy and intrigue; hands filthy with a sordid past that begs for exploration – yet he delivers such textured and commanding work. Hardy has been guilty of slurring dialogue a little too much for what’s palatable in the past, but his acidic vocals here thrash throughs scenes with potent intent. A passion project for he and his father, it is clear that much meticulous detailing has been woven into James’ tapestry, and Hardy intends to exercise the role to its fullest, most fearsome potential.
Pryce offers a reflective level of power and purpose to his Strange as he did most recently with the High Sparrow in HBO’s Game of Thrones. From this introductory hour, he seems more than a fitting antagonist for our shady antihero; rather a ruthless nemesis who’ll exploit his position of influence in order to attain what he most desires: a small portion of land bequeathed to Delaney following his father’s death, which is situated directly between British and American-operated rival territories. Intent and drama is implemented swiftly in this first episode, but Knight’s prose maintains a richer focus on shadowing as opposed to revealing. We gain finite nuggets of information about surrounding characters thanks to excellent if diverting dialogue, but it is very clear that we are merely scratching the surface of this mini-series. As the season progresses, one excepts the depths of storytelling will really begin to appear.
Nyholm’s lens is as expertly assured as his fine work on Scandi serial The Killing. He renders a sad, sombre image thanks to static framing amongst grey-washed set and costume designs; clothes as thick with must and silt as the wrenched air hanging in haze above the River Thames. The aesthetic craft of Taboo immediately places the spectator in the very heart of the 1800s – heady with alcohol, and prostitution; wallowing with poverty, and sickness. UK-US exports of this particular sub-genre tend to focus on the Aristocratic or the Sovereign, but this internationally-financed offering is certain to set the balance. The British Empire has some ravishing hallmarks no doubt, but our history isn’t all that rosy, that’s for sure…
Our first taste of Hardy’s mercurial new drama is most certainly impressive. Thick with foreboding ambience, and fizzing with warped potential, Taboo is firmly on-track to become your new Saturday night addiction. We look forward to dwelling in the darkness of a second episode next week.
Taboo airs on BBC One HD on Saturday evenings at 9:15pm. It airs on FX in the United States from Tuesday, 10th January.