Tom Hardy makes a particular sound that I just love. You’ve heard it in Mad Max: Fury Road or Warrior or The Revenant or any other film from the 39-year-old British actor’s recent resume. It’s a breathy hypermasculine incoherence used for communication or exclamation or interrogation, a mumble that’s a roar that’s a sigh that’s a burp that’s a desperate barbaric yearning yawp.
In Taboo, the actor huffs and groans as James Keziah Delaney, an angry man in a big hat wreaking delightfully florid havoc through 1814 London. James disappeared to Africa 10 years ago. He returns home on the occasion of his father’s mysterious death, heart full of darkness, body covered in gym-rat tattoos.
Hardy’s no stranger to TV work. He was a Jewish gangster in Steven Knight’s BBC crime drama Peaky Blinders. (Knight and Hardy co-created Taboo with Hardy’s father, Chips.) But much of Taboo‘s fun derives from watching Hardy’s Oscar-nominated aggro-grand charisma explode onto a smallscreen costume drama. This eight-episode miniseries is a handsome, decadent production; you feel the influence of executive producer Ridley Scott in the microscopic particularity of the dirt molecules. But Taboo‘s star stalks through the finery like a wild dog. Hardy infuses James with a relentless bull-in-a-china-shop paranoia. He looks trapped, and the only way out is to chew all the gorgeous scenery.
I’ve seen three episodes of Taboo and couldn’t tell you what it’s all about, really. James’ dad owned land on the U.S.-Canada border. James inherits the land, and quickly runs afoul of the Americans, the royals, and the East India Company. The latter is rendered herein as a Georgian-era mash-up of the NSA, the KGB, and a too-big-to-fail megabank. Jonathan Pryce has a ball as the Company’s chieftain, dropping F-bombs with gusto. (You get the message: This ain’t f—ing Downton.)
Mostly, James hangs out with prostitutes and lusts for his sister (Oona Chaplin). When he adopts a dog, it’s a dog that eats corpses. He’s up to no good, and he’s clearly planning something. For backstory, James is haunted by memories of the slave trade, but he also maybe got supernatural powers from Africa. So there’s post-woke political anti-imperialism and otherizing white-dude-gone-wild cultural imperialism — fun for the whole family!
Taboo‘s gruff and tough and silly, and I’m hooked. I could watch Hardy read the phone book. I assume he would eat it. B+
RELATED: Initial thoughts on Tom Hardy in Taboo
Taboo premieres Tuesday, Jan. 10 at 10 p.m. ET on FX.