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Hardy tests 'Taboo' limits on FX

Lorraine Ali, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

A savage. A ghost. A madman.

No one quite knows what to make of James Delaney (Tom Hardy) when he returns to England, seemingly from the dead after going down in a slave ship nearly a decade ago off the Gold Coast of Africa.

One thing is for sure: He's not the same young man who left London in 1804 as an "exceptional" corporal in East India Trading Co. He's now brooding, disturbed and occasionally mumbles in a Native American dialect that scares the xenophobic population of Regency-period London.

Unraveling the mystery behind his disappearance -- which involves the horrors of the slave trade, hidden family secrets and corporate corruption -- is at the heart of the dark, compelling and often-haunting eight-part miniseries "Taboo," debuting Tuesday on FX.

The BBC 1 production is produced by Oscar winner Ridley Scott and features an impressive cast of British talent, half of whom you've seen in "Game of Thrones" (or pick any other notable English drama of the last two years): Jonathan Pryce, David Hayman, Nicholas Woodeson and Roger Ashton-Griffiths. And "Taboo" finds its creators Steven Knight and Tom Hardy working together again after their success on another wonderfully grim drama (is there any other kind from the Brits these days?), "Peaky Blinders."

Hardy continues his mastery of the deeply disturbed man (Alfie Solomons of "Blinders," the murderous John Fitzgerald of "Revenant") with Delaney, a man whose unnerving, dead-eyed stare is rivaled only by that of Oliver Reed's Bill Sykes in "Oliver Twist."

Though most everyone around Delaney would prefer to write him off as "utterly mad," they can't ignore the menacing man in the dusty black coat and top hat. Since his father died, he's become sole heir to the family shipping business and a strategic swath of coast in the Pacific Northwest, and the all-powerful East India Trading Co. shipping empire wants what he has.

The head of the corrupt shipping company, Sir Stuart Strange (Pryce), is willing to do whatever it takes to acquire the estate, while Delaney's half sister, Zilpha (Oona Chaplin), has her own designs on their late father's assets. Delaney and his sibling, however, have been romantically involved, so there's more to their dealings than just shillings and land deeds -- any questions as to why the show's called "Taboo"?

Like "Peaky Blinders," "Taboo" is not easy watching. It requires intense focus to keep track of historical references, multiple characters and the complex story lines of his scheming enemies (or are they the good guys?). Subplots include characters navigating the British government's strained relations with America in the War of 1812, complicated big business schemes that make Goldman Sachs look like rank amateurs and heartbreaking takes on the shipping trades most shameful line of business: the slave trade.

But it's worth the effort. Like Clive Owen as Dr. John Thackery in "The Knick," a similarly bleak but smart period drama about New York, Hardy gives us such a magnetic central character with Delaney that he alone could carry the drama. But the theme here of big business versus individual morality, and the idea that sometimes the most eccentric among us are not crazy -- they just know more -- make "Taboo" one of the more unique and thoughtful offerings of the new year.

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