Thursday 14 December 2017

Grit happens: when period dramas go dark

Tom Hardy's new thriller is heralded as the grisly antidote to the sentimentality of 'Downton Abbey' and ushering in a new TV era

Brooding: Tom Hardy in new series ‘Taboo’
Brooding: Tom Hardy in new series ‘Taboo’
Tom Hardy in Taboo
Ed Power

Ed Power

In the new period drama 'Taboo', Tom Hardy gives a career-best performance as an avenging sociopath. He swears, he glares, he threatens violence with every penetrating glance and subtle realigning of his jaw.

What's different is that the British actor isn't, for once, starring in a dystopian road movie à la 'Mad Max: Fury Road' or squeezing into the jumpsuit of a comic book nasty as he did tangling with Batman as Bane in 'The Dark Knight Rises'. This time, he's the hero.

'Taboo' chronicles the vengeful schemings of one James Delaney (Hardy), an early 19th century adventurer whose murky backstory includes murder and dealings in the slave trade. As the story begins, Delaney, widely presumed dead, has returned from Africa for his father's funeral and an award meet-up with his estranged sister (Oona Chaplin).

Soon he is on a very bloody collision course with the establishment, as personified by conspiratorial mogul Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce in his second small screen villain role after a recent turn as fanatical preacher the High Sparrow in 'Game of Thrones').

Tom Hardy in Taboo
Tom Hardy in Taboo

Welcome to the 2017 costume drama, where all is changed utterly. The genteel picture of yesteryear as painted by 'Downton Abbey' has been sent to the outhouse. Instead, 'Taboo' treats us to a version of the past that is all guts and very little glory.

Here, the London of 200 years ago is presented as a stinky, rotting purgatory. The muck-strewn city brims with merchants hawking offal and prostitutes hawking whatever the punter fancies. Everyone is filthy and foul-mouthed and speaks in a sort of low-Dickensian Shakespearean gibberish.

Over it all hangs the spectre of transatlantic slavery (the practice would not be abolished in Britain for another 20 years). Viewers tuning into tomorrow night's first episode expecting a quaint tale of toffs and tradesman are in for a shock. 'Taboo' is hardcore in its bleakness.

This isn't how it used to be. Even as television turned increasingly stark with shows such as 'The Sopranos' and 'The Wire', the costume drama remained a genre apart. Consider the success of 'Downton', which depicted Edwardian Britain as rustic Neverland in which cheerful peasants are looked over by well-meaning lords and ladies.

There was conflict - but of the soapy kind (will Lady Mary be lucky in love? etc, etc). Since the series ended in 2015, ITV has attempted to fill the gap with lavish costume drama 'Victoria',, which some viewers summed up as "Downton with crowns".

A bucolic ambiance likewise characterised the BBC's 1995 adaptation of 'Pride and Prejudice', regarded as iconic principally because it features Colin Firth's Mr Darcy wading from a lake in a see-through shirt (simpler times, the mid Nineties). Closer to today, 'Call the Midwife' has given us a post-war London brimming with optimism. The setting had shifted but the sunny outlook was unchanged.

What united these shows was an insistence that, if the past was a foreign country, it was also an exceedingly pleasant one.

The message was that our collective yesteryears were a distinct improvement on the noisy, rat race present. Back then, everybody knew their place and life was suffused with the warm glow of ancient traditions loyally upheld. Oh, for a time machine to whisk us to that halcyon era!

'Taboo' sets a smoking flintlock pistol to such ideas. It is cold and cruel, with the twist that Hardy's avenging Mr Delaney is also one of the more decent protagonists.

"He seems insane, crazy, evil, wrong," Hardy (39) - who received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for 2015's 'The Revenant' - said of his character last week.

"And then we find out he's actually probably the sanest, most honest man in the room and everybody else, the bastions and the pillars of society, are wearing masks."

His co-star Stephen Graham has described the show as "the antidote to 'Downton Abbey'".

"There's no lords or people making tea, it's gritty and heavy," he added.

Set against Hardy's Mr Delaney are a rogue's gallery of villains, most prominently the aforementioned Strange, the scheming East India company bigwig.

He is pitched as a 19th century Donald Trump, a bully and a boor who favours intimidation and assassination over Twitter burns.

The genesis of the series lies with that master of Victorian social realism, Dickens.

It was while playing the monstrous Bill Sykes in a 2007 adaptation of 'Oliver Twist' that Hardy's interest in period was kindled.

Working with his father, the wonderfully named Chips Hardy, he conceived of a petticoated romp with a difference (the title, 'Taboo' is explained several episodes in - we shan't spoil the surprise).

"In part it's Hamlet, there's Oedipus in there, there's Heart of Darkness… there's lots of different stories," Hardy recently explained.

"It's just trying to contain as many stories as possible without diluting it, and also still making it its own piece…it's the period drama that I desire to watch."

'Taboo' is gritty fun - but it is also part of a wider trend.

Period drama has turned increasingly bleak of late. In 2014, the BBC gave us a faithfully grim adaptation of Hilary Mantel's 'Wolf Hall', a grisly chronicling of machinations at the court of Henry VIII, while the network put a darker spin on Agatha Christie's 'And Then There Were None' in 2015.

Just this Christmas, the BBC's retelling of Christie's 'Witness For The Prosecution' splashed the red stuff with zeal (an early scene featured a cat walking through gore to lick blood from its recently slain mistress).

We were a long, long way from Miss Marple.

However shocking such scenes may be, the rise of the murky period drama is surely to be welcomed.

'Downton Abbey' was rightly beloved, but one can take only so much of patrician nobles and their cheerful underlings. 'Taboo' is proof that life is more interesting on the dark side.

'Taboo' begins on BBC One on Saturday at 9.15pm

Irish Independent

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