Tom Hardy's Taboo is a work of Wicker Man genius, so ignore the naysayers at your peril.
T Tom Hardy's Taboo has been the subject of much discussion, not all of it positive. Reports have suggested that the drama has cost its star £2 million, and it has been called "ponderous," "lacking in substance," and "the ultimate in frustration watching."
I'm here to tell you that the skeptics are wrong as we approach the series finale and James Delaney's final confrontation with the East India Company. In reality, Hardy is a genius who has been misunderstood, and Taboo, despite its melodrama, is the most entertaining show on television right now. Furthermore, it is based on a British tradition that has been misplaced in favor of simpler fare.
British historical drama has stuck to a formula for far too long. From the solemn (Wolf Hall) to the lighthearted (Downton Abbey), it all views the past through the lens of heritage history, dividing it up into manageable pieces.
An intensely hallucinatory and supernaturally infused show... Taboo is like something out of a bad dream. Photo by Robert Viglasky/Scott Free Prods.
It's the kind of historical drama that's usually right on the money (or, in the case of Downton Abbey, at least has a passing acquaintance with accuracy) and has its rough edges smoothed out so that even the most harrowing moments are watchable at 9 o'clock on a Sunday night. Sometimes the results are great (Wolf Hall), sometimes they're just okay (War and Peace), and sometimes they're just enjoyable fluff (Downton), but they're always recognizably from the Masterpiece Theatre school of historical drama. Taboo's greatness lies in the fact that it is not
Instead, Hardy's labor of love (or, if you must be cruel, vanity project) is massive, brazen, and brash. All the greats are here, from H. Rider Haggard and Joseph Conrad to H. Dickens and Wilkie Collins, in this potent brew of gothic revenge story and colonial critique. The kind of drama where the men are locked up in the Tower of London and the women in Bedlam, where the camera lingers lovingly on each muddy kid, and where the costumes owe as much to steampunk as they do to historical accuracy. The show is a vivid fever dream, full of hallucinations and constant hints at supernatural elements that (much like Delaney's dead mother) never quite come into focus. You, the viewer, have two choices: give in to the insanity circling you, or sigh and give up in disgust.
Nothing here has happened by chance. Although American cable network FX is involved, the show remains quintessentially British in tone and style. The difference is that Hardy, his dad Chips, and writer Steven Knight are tapping into a distinct but equally valid vein: the untamed spirit that was popular in the '60s and '70s but is all but forgotten today.
Taboo is a historical drama in the vein of Hammer House of Horror and The Wicker Man, where atmosphere plays a pivotal role.
Hammer House of Horror is the freewheeling filming that produced Witchfinder General, The Wicked Lady, and The Wicker Man, and Ben Wheatley makes a nod to it in A Field in England. Ken Russell is the king of this genre. This is the kind of period piece that doesn't really bother with accuracy when it comes to the facts of the time period being depicted, instead opting to play by its own strange rules in which atmosphere is paramount and every plot twist is accompanied by a distinct feeling of foreboding.
In fact, one of Taboo's best qualities is how often it recalls a lost Russell offspring. Perhaps best read in tandem with Gothic, his gloriously exaggerated take on the lives of Byron and Shelley, in which we get a glimpse of what was going on in England two years before the romantic poets told ghost stories to one another while lounging on the shores of Lake Geneva.
Taboo teeters on the edge of being compelling and being ridiculous, but thanks to the excellent work of Jessie Buckley and Tom Hollander, it lands on the former. Credit for the photograph goes to Robert Viglasky/Scott Free Prods.
Similar to Gothic, Taboo has a plot that verges on being both compelling and ludicrous, and the only reason it succeeds is because of the excellent performances of its lead actors (Tom Hollander and Jonathan Pryce are particularly entertaining). Delaney's father has been married three times, and each time Jessie Buckley has brought a new level of maturity and insight to the role. Taboo isn't satisfied with simply discussing past wrongdoing and concealed information; there must also be incest, exorcisms, slaves, spies, gunpowder plots, and increasingly gruesome deaths.
In what ways is Hardy familiar with this subgenre of British period drama? Definitely - and not just because he keeps the scare factor at eleven the whole time. "There's no point — I'm always like this," Delaney tells a concerned interlocutor after the man offers to come back at a more sober and convenient date. "Taboo" may be full of grime and torment, but it is also dry-witted, shot through with sharp and knowing one-liners and reveling, as Russell did. with every crazier turn of the plot,
Taboo, like Ken Russell's The Devils, is fascinating despite (or perhaps because of) its madness. This picture was taken by Allstar/Cinetext/Warner Bros.
Then, of course, there's Hardy's acting. Grunting at unknowing bystanders, growling at his benighted half-sister Zilpha to "take that fucking dress off now," and threatening "extreme violence" to nearly everyone, he resembles a combination of Bill Sikes and Heathcliff in his ever-present hat and billowing coat. The specter of Oliver Reed, who would have admired Hardy's dedication to unbalancing even the simplest of scenes, hovers over everything. Hardy's performance is never less than convincing, even at its most hammy moments (lurches in accent, a hint that he might be trying to channel Richard Burton in his later, take-the-Hollywood-paycheck days). This is an intentional interpretation in which the theatricality serves to mask the truth, much like how Delaney hides his pragmatism beneath his monster persona. It's the kind of charismatic turn that catches the eye despite (or perhaps because of) its insanity, like Vincent Price's unsettling Matthew Hopkins in Witchfinder General or Reed's tormented priest in The Devils.
That's why my love for Taboo is unavoidable. It's a vanity project, sure, and it does throw everything but the kitchen sink and the bath into the plot, but it's also willing to take risks. Some will always argue that Hardy's attempt to inject his own personality into the historical drama fails. In my opinion, there is nothing inappropriate about making an ambitious attempt at a genre, and Taboo succeeds because it does so.
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