There is not a single moment in the eight-episode of Taboo when the sun shines through the overcast sky to lend the series some bright colours.
With its prevailing washed-out tone – where a red outfit seems out of place – Taboo prepares you for its bleak world from the get-go, which aptly begins with a funeral.
But instead of turning the audience away with its cheerless disposition, Taboo achieves the opposite.
We are drawn to see where it’s all headed with every new turn in the story, with hardly a misstep, especially performance-wise. Its few faults lie in the fact that the audience is left in the dark about what exactly is happening. You can say the series is not forthcoming with information.
It also doesn’t help that there are countless English accents (or mumblings) featured, with many words often lost on our ears.
Set in early 19th century London, Taboo kicks off with the return of James Keziah Delaney (Tom Hardy) previously believed to be dead in Africa. “The ghost” (also known as the devil Delaney) comes home just as his father is buried.
He stands to inherit his father’s shipping business and properties, as well as his debts. James’ timing, needless to say, is just awful, as his presence complicates things in the worst ways for a whole lot of people.
One of those properties is Nootka Sound – a real place on Vancouver Island in North America. Both the United States and Britain have been coveting this piece of land as it offers a direct trade route to China.
On the British side, James manages to upset the crown and the leading shipping establishment, East India Company. Well, too bad for all involved, because James is not a man to be trifled with. Also, he has his own plans for Nootka Sound.
So, every dirty tactic company man Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce) and Prince Regent’s advisor Solomon Coop (Jason Watkins) come up with separately is out-manoeuvred by James – even if it means getting stabbed or getting hit on the head. The scene in which this happens is just shocking.
Taboo is ultimately a grounded tale of revenge, but mixed up within it are a slew of fantastical plots. James – described by a pompous character as a London mongrel – is of mixed parentage. He has an English father and a Native American mother. It’s unsure if he has mystical powers like his mother, or has gotten the madness genes from mum and dad – because he is a little off-centre all the time.
Family matters don’t end there either. James is in love with his half-sister Zilpha (Oona Chaplin), who is married to a lout of a husband, and he learns of a young stepmother (Jessie Buckley) who lays claim to the inheritance.
While this thorny wheel and deal is what moves the story forward, it is really the performance of every actor on Taboo that has us glued to the small screen. At the top is, naturally, Hardy, who co-created Taboo with his father Chips Hardy and writer Steven Knight (of films Locke and Redemption).
As Hardy has proven again and again, he is a force to be reckoned with when bringing a character to life. In Taboo, his portrayal of the protagonist puts forth a man who is intense and terrifying all at once, which Hardy can pull off with minimal dialogue or just a grunt. With the aid of a tall hat, and a flowing coat, Hardy’s character cuts an imposing figure whose demeanour is automatically meant to intimidate everyone around him.
Taboo is a must-watch just to see Hardy in action.
Other standouts are Pryce, David Hayman (as the Delaney household’s butler), Stephen Graham (as a street thug and James’s accomplice), Tom Hollander (as a smart-arse chemist) and an unrecognisable Mark Gatiss in a fat suit (as the utterly yucky prince).
What is also impressive is the attention to detail. The recreation of the era is not only present on the streets but also in a character’s appearance (Dirt and mud everywhere! Dirty teeth! Dirty clothes!). Whenever the plot takes us to visit Prince Regent’s home, we get the sense of his extravagant and self-indulgent taste. At the corner of every room is a stuffed African animal, which irks us more about him.
Even if Taboo may seem difficult to get through, it’s a show worth investing in especially if you like slow-burning period drama.
Taboo airs every Monday at 11pm on FX HD (Astro Ch 726).