Review: FX’s ‘Taboo’ Starring Tom Hardy

Taboo star Tom Hardy
Tom Hardy as James Keziah Delaney in ‘Taboo’ (Photo by Robert Viglasky, Copyright 2016, FX Networks)

Steven Knight and Tom Hardy continue their partnership with FX’s new dramatic series Taboo premiering on January 10, 2017 at 10pm ET/PT. The series was created by Knight, Tom Hardy, and Tom’s father, Chip, with Ridley Scott serving as an executive producer. In front of the camera, Knight and Hardy have gathered an impressive ensemble cast led by Hardy that includes Oona Chaplin, Jonathan Pryce, Michael Kelly, Stephen Graham, Franka Potente, and David Hayman. The series features amazing sets, incredible costumes, and first-rate cinematography, but make no mistake, the reason to tune in is to watch Tom Hardy delve into the world of the early 1800s to play a complicated, intelligent though mentally unstable man whose motivations aren’t easy to discern.

Taboo takes place in London in 1814 as James Keziah Delaney (Hardy) returns home following the death of his father. His return from Africa is a shock to the town and to his half-sister, Zilpha (Chaplin), who assumed he was long dead. James’ resurrection also proves to be a thorn in the side of the wheelers and dealers at the East India Trading Company who wanted a plot of land in America owned by the senior Delaney and had already made arrangements with Zilpha to procure the pivotal property known as Nootka Sound.

James inherited the plot, his family’s home, and the family business, and he has no intention of turning any of his possessions over to the East India Trading Company. Neither the threats of disgrace nor death can sway James into doing business with EITC, a company that emerges as the main villain in the first three episodes of the series. James has a well-earned disturbing reputation of violence, having dealings with the dead, and other socially unacceptable behavior. He’s underestimated by his foes who know of his disreputable reputation which distracts them from realizing his uncanny ability to always be one step ahead of his adversaries until it’s too late.

FX provided screeners of Taboo season one’s first three episodes and although what is actually driving James isn’t revealed, episodes one through three lay out a groundwork of political intrigue and espionage mixed with supernatural elements and the occasional action scene. Taboo’s dark, gritty, and occasionally disturbing, and it somehow manages to work its way under your skin. The first dip into this brutal world is slow-going, but the tempo and story pick up as the episodes go on.

Hardy’s James is playing a dangerous game and by the third episode you don’t necessarily support his actions but at least are willing to become engaged in his story. Very few real details of James’ backstory emerge by the end of episode three (there are many hints at his horrific experiences), but there’s reason to believe Taboo will get increasingly more bloody and brutal as the episodes progress. James has visions of his deceased mother which we’re led to believe will help to connect the dots as to why he’s playing all sides against each other while being loyal to no particular nation.

Tom Hardy is in nearly every scene, delivering an intense, powerful performance. Hardy’s remarkably adept at diving into crazy characters, and with just a grunt or glare Hardy’s James can stop the bravest man in his tracks. When you think the camera’s lingered on Hardy’s face a beat too long, you realize the extended, silent close-ups are having their intended effect of showing James’ power to intimidate and dominate in any situation.

Episode one is a slow introduction to the world of James Delaney, an episode that requires patience as the key players are set up. By episode two, James is more fleshed out and his place in the world becomes more defined. Episode three begins to deliver the pay-off for sticking with the series as the threads of the various storylines fall more into place.

Taboo is a visually stunning series, with the stink, grime, and general uncleanliness of those outside of the upper class/royalty almost palpable. It’s definitely not your typical period drama and it’ll be interesting to find out the demographics of the viewers. Episode one didn’t immediately hook me, but by episode three I’ve become fully invested in finding out what happens to James and how he becomes this fierce, unstable, and menacing figure.