“I’ve got a job for you,” I growl at my wife, my children, and my cat. Such home behaviour is courtesy of Tom Hardy’s oddly distinctive semi-catchphrase in Taboo, a show that he co-created with his father Chips Hardy and writer Steven Knight.
Starring as James Delaney, Hardy traverses the dangerous streets of early 19th century London after having been presumed dead in Africa for the last 12 years.
He returns during the will reading of his recently deceased father with some diamonds and as heir to title deeds for a strategically essential island off the west coast of North America.
His presence alone throws a massive bearded spanner into the works of many, including both the malevolent East India Trading Company, and his own half-sister and brother-in-law who stood to inherit the valuable island following the suspicious death of their father, Horace Delaney.
One of the ways Taboo keeps you watching is by throwing ever increasing odds at the brooding and moody James, only for him to have somehow anticipated the attacks and protected himself by clever information bartering. “I’ve got a job for you,” is Delaney using leverage to set up another domino.
There are large chunks of Taboo that are great fun, not least of which a compelling lead performance from Hardy who puts so much presence into his furrowed brow brooding that at times he seems little more than a cross shadow in the corner of his dilapidated family home.
The story takes licence to explore such subjects as the slave trade, colonialism, corruption enacted by rich companies seeking to influence government, and the inherent class divide in 1814 London.
The central family mystery that Delaney seeks to untangle (was his father murdered?) is a thread woven throughout other social topics.
Is Taboo Worth Watching?
Despite boasting a gaggle of great performances (including a forehead vein bulging Jonathan Pryce as chairman of the East India, and Stephan Graham as a dangerous street informant) Taboo has an undercurrent of the occult.
James’ affections for Zilpha, his half-sister (Oona Chaplin giving lots of wide eyed wonder and fear) go beyond the realms of simple familial connection.
His time spent in Africa seems to have imbued him with the ability to perform a choice set of magical rituals which are predominantly used to, um, ‘insert’ himself into her dreams. If any part of the story could be cut out and barely missed then quasi-incest is high on that list.
Except Delaney also has some sort of connection with the dead. Again, his ‘Africa’ time is shorthand for Hardy to frown as if burdened with dark knowledge that the show neither tries nor cares to explain much.
This is exacerbated by Taboo taking ‘slow burn’ as a challenge, holding its cards very close to its chest for the first few episodes, exacerbated still further by a serious case of the mumble dialogue. And chunks of the dialogue are pretty cringy to hear, clearly reaching for Taboo by name and Taboo by nature.
Yet Tom Hardy (Venom) does fill the screen with indefinable presence. Even after you get used to knowing that Delaney probably has some ace up his sleeve at any given time, it is immensely fun to watch powerful forces continually underestimate him and barely get the chance to register how they’ve been screwed over.
Much like seeing how a trick is done, once you know the outcomes there is little motivation to return to Taboo. Woman are short changed (rescue fodder or sex workers, disappointingly) in this tale of men doing serious frowning about men stuff.
Yet, if the idea of watching Hardy and his wonderfully big hat slink across 19th century cobblestones appeals, I can confidently say I have a job for you…
Words by Mike Record