History & Film | Austen’s Alternate Universe: Taboo

Bethany Latham

“Nobody excels at playing ferocious psychopaths with a sensitive side quite like Tom Hardy.” 1

The Regency era is fixed in the mind of most as quintessentially Austenesque – a setting for polite, sedate romances, witty repartee bandied between well-dressed dancing partners at assemblies. Though I’ve been accused of having a dark turn of mind, personally, when I think Regency, I don’t think cannibalism and incest. But then, I’m not Tom Hardy.

A few years ago, Hardy had an idea. He’d just finished playing Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist, and it occurred to him that he’d like to create a character that was equal parts Sikes, Jack the Ripper, and Marlow from Heart of Darkness. Hardy offered the idea of this character to his father who, after a year’s rumination, sketched a treatment of sorts, an outline the Hardys then gave to Steven Knight, with whom Hardy had worked on Peaky Blinders. The result is the BBC-FX-Ridley Scott series Taboo.

Set in 1814, as the nascent U.S. and Great Britain are embroiled in the War of 1812, Taboo is incredibly atmospheric, though not with the ambiance one might expect. This version of Regency London is dark, decayed, horrible, and filthy, a sort of depraved Dickensian underbelly transported from the Victorian age. The cinematography consists of so much mud, various shades of grey where little color is seen, and the sun seems not to actually exist – there’s seldom enough light to effectively cast shadows. This extends even to scenes of lush interiors, such as that of the Prince Regent’s apartments or the meeting rooms of the East India Company; all are washed out and dim. Enter into this half-lit world James Keziah Delaney (Hardy), an adventurer long thought dead. Naturally, he stuns everyone when he shows up very much alive to attend his father’s funeral. It’s evident from the beginning that there is something…amiss between Delaney and his only surviving relative, a half-sister, Zilpha (Oona Chaplin, of Game of Thrones fame, and that’s not all this series has in common with Game of Thrones). Delaney intends to claim his inheritance, which includes a much-disputed smidgen of the globe called Nootka Sound (an inlet of current-day Vancouver Island, BC). As it turns out, almost everyone wants Nootka Sound – the Prince Regent (a fat suit-clad Mark Gatiss), the Americans, and the winner of Taboo’s villain contest, the East India Company.

Since they’re usually the most fun, let’s start with the villain here. Knight has said, “With any period piece I think the thing to do is forget that it’s not contemporary when you’re writing and to have the characters feel as much as possible like characters that you would know.”2 Hunh. This is indicative of an oft-encountered mindset with regard to historical drama that seems somewhat ironic. In order to create authentic historical characterization, one would think it imperative to always keep in mind that “it’s not contemporary.” But then, that’s only if one is interested in historicity. It’s endemic in the industry: modern audiences are assumed to be too [insert pejorative of your choice here] to understand or empathize with characters who are not like themselves (i.e., not portrayed with modern sensibilities and motivations); we must therefore relate them to/translate them into something modern. This mindset, of course, doesn’t end with characterization. It reaches into various and sundry elements of the story, in this case the depiction of the East India Company, which is a stand-in not simply for the evils of imperialism, but for all the contemporary entities within the screenwriter’s agenda: “The East India Company…throughout the 19th century, was the equivalent of the CIA, the NSA and the biggest, baddest multi-national corporation on earth, all rolled into one self-righteous, religiously motivated monolith,” says Knight. Sure. And also: “They weren’t an evil organization that went around deliberately oppressing people, but they were driven by profit, and how familiar is that now?”3 So which is it? Are they “religiously motivated” or are they “driven by profit”? The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and I’ve neither the time nor the inclination to address these particular assertions; the salient point is how they inform Knight’s portrayal of the Company. Along with the heavily Gothic atmosphere, there is now the added element of a corporate thriller in the form of the machinations of the Company. As one might imagine, the men who run it are an unpalatable bunch, headed up by the alliteratively-named Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce, a most felicitous casting choice). There are parts of his characterization that audibly jangle, most notably his penchant for dropping the F-bomb and filthy epithets in company, an unlikely habit for someone of his social class during the period. Yet on the whole, Pryce accomplishes some engrossing scenery chewing, in a series rife with such mastications. While others are also out to get Delaney (almost everyone, it seems), it is Strange who is truly his nemesis, and watching the two can be riveting – one the assured, amoral, and ruthless head of a “multi-national corporation,” the other an equally ruthless blunt instrument…with a side of Machiavellian brilliance.

While the sympathetic character column is sparsely populated, this series has villains to spare. Solomon Coop (Jason Watkins), Private Secretary to the corpulent and extremely unappealing regent, runs a network of spies that rivals that of the East India Company, a sometime uneasy ally but mostly competitor in the game for Nootka Sound. While primarily a competent and unassuming bureaucrat, he’s equally content torturing Delaney and drooling lasciviously over females he’s incarcerated. Then there’s Thorne Geary (Jefferson Hall), husband of Delaney’s half-sister, a half-zealot, all-abusive drunk poised to improve his flailing financial situation through Zilpha’s inheritance – until Delaney shows up and scuppers his plans, amongst other things. And lastly, there’s Dr. Dumbarton (Michael Kelly), an American “doctor” working with cholera victims at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital…and also a spy.

So what of the “hero”? As might be imagined from a combo of Jack the Ripper, Bill Sikes, and Marlow, Delaney isn’t actually hero material. He knows the evil the Company perpetrates because he was “once part of it,” and seems without pity even where it might be given with no cost. Keys to his character are few and far between, which has disappointed many reviewers who apparently prefer their enigmas to be clearly elucidated for them. For such a hulking figure, Delaney possesses quite a thinking machine encased in that dirty beaver-fur top hat. There does seem to be a bit of Marlow’s introspection, and in keeping with the themes from Heart of Darkness, Delaney’s regarded with such unease primarily because he’s suspected by the Londoners of having gone native while in darkest Africa, of encountering something malevolent and returning changed. They seem oblivious to the fact that, just as in Conrad’s original, the two settings, Africa and England, are equivalent – darkness is not limited to a geographical location, because it’s within us. Another element which has made post-colonial apologist reviewers distinctly uncomfortable: Delaney practices some vague, mumbly (most of Hardy’s dialogue is delivered in grunts and clicks) form of black magic, gleaned from his time in Africa as well as from his mother, who (spoiler alert) turns out to have been a Salish Native American from Nootka. Delaney incants while rife with pantlessness in the dim confines of his decaying family home, so consider yourself warned. Speaking of which, the scenes of Delaney physically engaging with his enemies are chillingly effective; this man is a savage, brutalizing his opponents, to the point of ripping one’s throat out as a wolf would. He eats parts of his victims. These scenes, while a small part of the series, feature the type of realism that leaves one cringing and wishing the scene would end, and with it the suffering and violence. We know someone’s gonna die; just please make it stop. But these scenes, like everything Hardy does onscreen, underline the physicality of his portrayal. Much heck hath been given by reviewers over Hardy’s terse grunts, growls, and low-pitched mumbles, but dialogue is rendered secondary through the physical presence his character projects. As one reviewer stated, “I’m hooked. I could watch Hardy read the phone book. I assume he would eat it.”4

Taboo is a predominantly male revenge and retribution story, a vehicle for Hardy, and he carries it well, stalking purposefully through an underworld the viewer is fascinated to watch, and thankful she never has to actually visit. He’s supported by a cast of convincing subsidiary characters, such as the family’s long-time and long-suffering manservant, Brace (David Hayman), and the procession of colorful thieves, ne’er-do-wells, and urchins often employed to add Dickensian flavor to any vaguely historical piece. The women of the tale bear mentioning, if only to highlight how much more could have been made of them. Zilpha is a bastion of cold composure on the outside and a seething cauldron about to fly apart underneath. Franka Potente reprises the role of whore and madam she pioneered in Copper, and Jessie Buckley is added to the ensemble to offer a foil for Delaney as well as some romantic tension, given his relationship with Zilpha (ick).

Taboo is full of uncomfortable themes (you did note the title, yes?). Taboo is dark. It’s occasionally viscerally violent. It’s also imaginative and compelling, well-acted and, at only eight episodes, easily binge-able. The series left off with a satisfying conclusion, but also the trailer of more to come, and it has been green-lit for a second season. The next season promises a change of setting…though I have a feeling it’ll be no less dark.

References:

  1. Gilbert, Sophie. “Taboo: A Grim, Gruesome Costume Drama Starring Tom Hardy.” The Atlantic, 10 January 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/01/taboo-fx-tom-hardy-review/512627/
  2. Patten, Dominic. “Taboo EP Steven Knight on Working with Tom Hardy & Future of Peaky Blinders.” http://deadline.com/2017/01/taboo-tom-hardy-steven-knight-peaky-blinders-fx-1201882741/
  3. Ibid.
  4. Franich, Darren. “Taboo: EW Review.” Entertainment Weekly, 13 January 2017. http://ew.com/tv/2017/01/10/taboo-ew-review/

 

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: BETHANY LATHAM is a professor, librarian, and Managing Editor of HNR. She publishes in various scholarly and popular journals, as well as writing for EBSCO’s NoveList database.

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Published in Historical Novels Review  |  Issue 81, August 2017

Posted by Bethany Latham

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