TO SAY THAT Period Drama, and especially BBC Period Drama, had become a tad stale, trite even, is an understatement. I certainly have had simply enough of corsets and horse drawn carriages and stiff, upper lips occasionally progressing to the alternate emotional state of mild quivering. So how much us nay-sayers of the Genre did say yay when in 2014 along came Peaky Blinders. Sure it wasn’t perfectly written (or indeed even close to perfect in its portrayal of the ‘brummie’ accent) but it had swagger, it told a different story to a lot of gangster stories and, generally, it was a shot in the arm of the Period Drama, taking all the stylistic anachronisms of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Homes and making it significantly less shite. It also established Steven Knight as a major name in British writing, especially when season 2 brought along bona fide star Tom Hardy in a small (but undeniably scene stealing role). Imagine my excitement when I heard that Knight had another collaboration with Hardy coming (after Blinders and the film Locke) , as well as Tom’s Dad Edward ‘Chips’ Hardy, and it was taking the tumultuous period of pre-American independence England while also approaching issues surrounding slavery, the tea trade and other things not involving ships. Imagine my pause to take it in when I heard that it would also feature Brazil and GI Joe: Retaliation‘s Jonathan Pryce, Game of Thrones’ Oona Chaplin, Dan le Sac & Scroobius Pip’s Scroobius Pip and many more. Now try and work out what such a project might look like. Got an idea in your head? No, you aren’t even close.
Taboo is the story of James Delaney (Hardy), a soldier returned home to London from Africa to gain revenge for his father on the East India Trading Company and to capitalise on his inheritance, a patch of land in America that holds the key to the tea trade in China. Also there’s his sister (Chaplin) who is a bit too close to him and her husband who hates Delaney because reasons, some other stuff, Mark Gatiss plays an obese, syphilitic monarch with some interesting taxidermy, Stephen Graham plays a gangster with compass tatooed on his head and Doug Stamper from House of Cards (Michael Kelly) is a doctor who has links to the American revolution and period accurate ruined teeth. It’s quite hard to provide a plot run-down because no one really seems to know whats happening at any one time, well the writers do I hope but they don’t want to tell us. Over the course of the eight episodes of season one there is enough maneuvering and backstabbing (both the metaphorical and the literal) and plotting and counter-plotting to put Le Carre in a headspin. But here’s the thing, amidst all the insanity, it sure is fun.
On a pure thespianic level, Taboo is a joy. From the charismatic glowering of Hardy through the getting-paid-by-the-fuck poetry of Jonathan Pryce, clearly having an esteemed producer such as Ridley Scott on board has helped attract a better class of actor with scenes being packed out with delightful roles for the likes of Gatiss, Graham & Kelly but also an amount of time given to TV stalwarts like Jason Watkins, Edward Hogg and the always compelling Lucian Msameti. Full credit goes to Rev‘s Tom Hollander though who despite me saying nothing about who he plays so as to maintain a level of spoiler-free quality to the review, suffice to say, he steals every scene he’s in and quite a few where he’s not. It’s not exactly a perfect cast though: the female cast members while trying to add more substance to their scenes than they are given, there is a lack of shading or motive given to them with Chaplin’s Zilpha, beyond a terrific mid-season arc, seems to mostly serve as dressing or motivation for male character’s scenes around them. Equally Jefferson Hall as Zilpha’s dickhead husband is a bland, humourless ‘villain’ role that doesn’t seem well served by actor or creative.
A problem, that may be remedied by binge watching, is a feeling of individual episodes being more designed to serve the whole rather than standing alone, lending some episodes a certain shapeless quality as they build-up for the next big set-piece. Also a lot of the Native American/African spiritual weirdness and ‘flashbacks’ involving Delaney’s mother seem to be set up for their visual qualities more than their contributing anything to the narrative. It’s also a programme prone to stretches that are quite, well, dull. As much as it colours the scenes with some fantastic set and cinematography, a lot of it feels like excellence in ideas more than in execution with a real failure to work out any impetus for interest for at least the first few episodes.
So should you watch it? Yeah, probably. Whatever happens, Hardy is never less than a compelling central figure and surrounding him are fine performances, some sweep beautiful cinematography (in fact the production elements are never less than stellar) and some suitably gruesome and frequently, painfully real fight scenes (a farmyard scrap with a ‘giant’ being a particular highlight) and a lot of attempts to try things not really done before. Whatever happens, somehow even when it’s boring, it’s still interesting. Really, that’s more important to me than being consistently good is consistently trying to settle for better than fine. Not everything works but heck it’s trying an awful lot. It’s possibly not the game-changer it should be, it doesn’t revolutionise the Period Drama leaving all things cowering in its wake but for what it is, it’s a helluva good time. Plus, Tom does get his kit off, which might be some people’s cup of tea I guess. Pun intended.
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