Set in 1814, the new period drama showing on BBC One is a far cry from any Austen novel. James Keziah Delaney, a sailor and adventurer presumed dead after ten years in Africa, returns to England following the death of his father amid dark rumours regarding his time spent away. Played by a grunting, hulking Tom Hardy, Delaney – and his past – are shrouded in mystery.
Now into its second episode, the Peaky Blinders-esque series certainly shows the BBC wishing to present cinematic, gritty historical dramas able to compete with the slew of big budget TV serials that have taken the entertainment industry by storm. Danish The Killing’s Kristoffer Nyholm and Finnish Anders Engström share the direction to powerful effect. Prostitutes, violence, corruption and the downright filth (and associated bad teeth) that was the reality for workers in early 19th-century London are darkly displayed in all their glory. The cinematography is enough to match any feature film, and from the opening scene of Delaney’s return to English shores amid relentless rain, to views across the banks of the Thames, from flashbacks to suffering slaves on storm-blighted ships and the raucous inside of brothels, Taboo’s ability to recreate the era, and its underbelly, in captivating detail is a significant draw.
Stephen Graham brings some of his This Is England menace to former sailor and professional criminal Atticus, while Jonathan Pryce’s Sir Stuart Strange, the Head of the East India Company, is wonderfully morally bereft. Our initial introductions to the key female characters at first suggest two dimensional stereotypes. But Delaney’s beautiful half-sister Zilpha, played by Oona Chaplin, seemingly under the control of cold husband Lieutenant Thorne Geary (Jefferson Hall), by the second instalment suggests a greater complexity and autonomy. And German Bourne actress Franka Potente’s Helga von Hinten has more than just the makings of a feisty brothel madame.
But it’s really around Hardy’s uncompromising performance that the drama pivots. Based on a story written by the actor and created with his father Edward “Chips” Hardy and Steven Knight, the character could have been written for him: dark, brooding, a man who mainly handles communication through looks and demeanour rather than dialogue, with an always latent aggression seeking expression; yet glimpses suggest that an inner integrity prevails.
It might not quite be the TV crack that some series have been for viewers but Taboo‘s grit, drama and cinematic period immersion are second to none and Hardy’s enigmatic Delaney is extremely watchable. With barely contained anticipation we await the next episode.
By Sarah Bradbury. First published on The Upcoming on 16th January 2017.
Taboo is showing on Saturdays at 9.15pm on BBC One. For further information or to watch on BBC iPlayer visit here.
Watch the trailer for Taboo here: