He came into the drama looking like death. Astride a white horse and covered by a sepulchral-looking cape as the rain lashed down, Tom Hardy’s mysterious adventurer James Delaney could have been one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
At a pinch I would say he looks like Conquest – though War, Famine and Death are all in with a shout.
Not surprisingly perhaps, the effect Hardy’s character has on people in BBC1’s new drama Taboo could best be described as chilling.
“Has hell opened up” muttered his half-sister Zilpha Geary (Oona Chaplin) when the semi-sibling she thought was dead stormed into the funeral of their late (unlamented) father Horace Delaney (Edward Fox). And everywhere he went it was the same.
Brooding doesn’t quite cover it. Hardy has delivered a one man menace machine, marrying Victorian adventurer with exotic devilry, witchcraft and a dash of 19th century Gothic (this is set in 1814, around the same time Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein).
“When Tom decides to play a role he throws himself into it,” writer Steven Knight told me. “He will happily throw himself into mud and to rivers and whatever else is required.” No kidding.
For the most part of episode one, though, his character was required to take possession of his late Dad’s estate. There wasn’t much cash to inherit, but there was a deserted peninsula of land west of Vancouver called Nootka Sound, which the East India Company wanted to take off his hands for a nominal fee. The land was a lot more valuable than it first appeared, you see, because of the political situation between the warring British and Americans.
Only of course, our anti-hero had deduced all this already and he adamantly rejected the creepy attentions of the company’s bosses, led by Jonathan Pryce’s Sir Stuart Strange (below). He did so with little more than a grunt and a threatening look. Be warned: James Delaney’s grunts and threatening looks communicate rather a lot.
Pryce’s Strange is another rather peculiar creation: soft-voiced and civilised one minute, effing and blinding the next. Those f-words were really scary – like a bullet zinging from nowhere. You don’t get that in Jane Austen.
It was all rather foreboding and tense, with director Kristoffer Nyholm lashing the screen with darkness and atmosphere and rain; it’s period escapism, but of the dark and uncomfortable kind. Just right for a cold Saturday night in January, I’d say.
It also had an intriguing dash of the supernatural that will no doubt play itself out over the next seven episodes. What exactly was that red dye James Delaney applied while chanting over his Pa’s coffin? What was he chanting?
James also told his dad’s old factotum Brace (David Hayman) that he could hear his father calling to him from London while he was in Africa. It’s hard to disbelieve him given that this mysterious communication enabled him to glean snippets of information from his now dead Dad he couldn’t have possibly discovered any other way.
It was witty too. James Delaney is not a man to make friends, but his suggestion that Brace (seemingly the only living person he remotely cares for) should spare the “maiden splutter” when he downed the family brandy was funny and adroitly delivered. But there isn’t much let up in a drama which is nicely set up for more black and brooding twists next week.
Having disinterred his father from his freshly-dug grave and sought a second opinion about his demise (it was arsenic poisoning said the dodgy grave-digger surgeon he had enlisted), James Delaney clearly is on a path to vengeance.
Sir Stuart Strange meanwhile has decided that the the East India Company’s “modern” solution to getting Nootka Sound off Delaney fils hasn’t worked. That presumably means Strange has a more ‘antique’ solution. I dread to think what that might be…
Taboo continues next Saturday 14 January on BBC1