Taboo is a period drama set in London, 1814, as England’s war with the United States nears its end and the East India Company dominates the seas. Into this turbulent time comes James Delaney (Tom Hardy), returning from his vodun-practicing in Africa to lock horns with the Crown and the Company, possibly for convoluted revenge, possibly for anti-corporate sentiment, possibly because Delaney is quite mad.
The show starts off as what looks to be a revenge thriller, but quickly veers in to essentially a heist flick, though far less suave (and without the heist), as Delaney marches around London putting together Gin Alley’s “Oceans Eleven” to supposedly take on his adversaries – although Delaney mostly just takes on their problems. The show later veers back on the revenge thriller stuff, then jettisons the revenge and most of the thrill too, with the final action set-piece coming across rather half-hearted. Thankfully the characters are fun enough to be around that Taboo remains consistently enjoyable viewing.
The acting is fairly solid in Taboo, as Tom Hardy, master of the grunt, masterfully grunts away, earning that most false of praises: ‘great screen presence.’ Much of the cast grunts along with him, but still manage to convey distinct and interesting characters, which is rather impressive. Tom Hollander as the debauched chemist is the most fun member of Delaney’s team, and Jonathan Pryce as Chairman of the East India Company is quite clearly enjoying himself as he gets to swear his head off, which must be some relief after his long stint of playing nice old men. The only lacking performance is Mark Gatiss as King George IV, who ends up chewing through the scenery, giving a performance so hammy it grinds against the surrounding actors.
The Mark of the BBC
Ultimately, Taboo is a BBC period drama through-and-through. The script-writing style, cinematography, direction, liberal application of both literal and figurative filth, the magic ambiguity portrayed, and so on, are all something we’ve seen before, and will see again. This is in some ways a strength – all the show’s elements are very solid because everyone knows what they’re doing in this familiar territory. Aside from the occasional clunky line or dodgy shot (the few shots of slow motion footage taken without cameras that can match the show’s normal frame rate are particularly grating), the ship sails smoothly through well-chartered territory. However, a show can hardly be “taboo” while it remains formulaic.
No Sharp Edges
The most edgy element to Taboo is probably Delaney’s love affair with his half-sister, played by Oona Chapman. However, Oona is just reprising her role from Game of Thrones as more of a plot object than a character in her own right, someone to be used and discarded by the story as is necessary, making it rather hard to care. What brief vodun the show does have is presented in the well-trod manner of smash-cutting through a series of surrealistic shots and shaky close-ups, which is a shame. Even Vikings, which is the weird cousin of historical fiction, has some interesting cinematography trickery for its magic. A show called Taboo that has the setting period of 1814, when the occult of the new world was making it way back to Britain, and actors like Tom Hardy and Jonathan Pryce, absolutely has the potential to be daring, experimental, and fresh. It could have been the British equivalent to the first season of True Detective, but instead it’s stuck firmly on BBC rails, making it a good show, but not a great one.