TABOO: Tuesday 10PM on FX – Potential DVR Alert
It may be that Tom Hardy will join Clive Owen and Michael Fassbinder among British leading men who never quite became the global superstars they seemed meant to be. With Owen and Fassbinder, there’s a certainly coldness to them that makes them perfectly cast in some of their more serious roles (The Knick and Shame, to name two), but has cut them off from wide appeal in comparison to more conventionally likable performers like Robert Downey Jr or Chris Pratt. Hardy, for his part, seems to long for character actor status over stardom. He constantly takes roles where his face is largely covered (The Dark Knight Rises, Mad Max: Fury Road), or where he speaks in strange voices (Dark Knight again, plus The Revenant, Legend, and The Drop, among others). His go-to move as an actor is a baleful glare held a moment or two longer than is strictly necessary.
Hardy–with a scarred face, of course–is in full glower in FX’s TABOO, playing a role he created for himself with the writer Steven Knight (who worked with Hardy on the one-man tour de force film Locke) and his own father Chips Hardy. He plays James Delaney, believed to be dead, who returns from Africa to a sumptuously filthy 1814 London (the opening episode is directed by Kristoffer Nyholm, and Ridley Scott is one of the producers) upon the death of his father, owner of a failing shipping company. Hardy is often photographed looming into frame, and his bulk in heavy coats is emphasized by shots of him from behind. Delaney’s very presence unsettles almost everyone with whom he comes into contact, even if he’s not threatening to kill them. (Which is frequently is.) He may have been a slave-trader, and there’s the whiff of the supernatural about him. Among the people who flinch at the sight of him are his half-sister Zilpha (Oona Chaplin), the whore (Franka Potente) who’s moved a brothel into his father’s offices, and Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce), the pompously ruthless head of the East India Company. .
Tonight’s first episode of 8, written by Knight, was all table-setting. James determined through a rude post-burial autopsy that his father was a victim of arsenic poisoning. There was some mystery about a teenage boy kept in hiding who might be the incestuous issue of James and Zilpha. Most importantly, James resisted the efforts of the East India Company to buy his father’s last remaining asset of value, a piece of land in North America being fought over by Britain and the young USA, and in doing so he became the enemy of Strange and his minions. As James, Hardy rarely raisesd his voice, and didn’t actually harm anyone seriously during the 80 minutes, but made it clear that at any moment he could remove his adversary from the chess board.
It’s not clear whether Taboo is going anywhere besides giving Hardy a chance to transfix and and showing off its atmospherics, or for that matter whether Hardy will express more than menace during its 8+ hours. As an opener, though, it promises a mad streak within its costume drama genre. Since his role was built around him, this is Hardy’s best chance to show that he can play a full character rather than a set of eccentric choices, although even those can be gripping enough. It marks yet another big swing by FX, which takes more of them than any platform around, and it’s certainly worthy of some time to prove itself more than a picturesque still life.