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‘Taboo’ review: First-rate Tom Hardy, lumbering story

Tom Hardy stars in the FX limited series, "Taboo," which is set in the early 19th century. (Credit: FX Networks)

THE SERIES “Taboo”

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on FX

GRADE B+

WHAT IT’S ABOUT It is a dark and stormy day in London, circa 1814, and a dark and stormy man makes his way toward the unsuspecting city. He is James Keziah Delaney (Tom Hardy), and he’s been to hell and back. Most people thought he was dead. Instead, he is very much alive and here to claim his inheritance: A rocky headland on the western shores of Canada, left to him by his recently dead father.

A former lover, Zilpha Geary (Oona Chaplin), is surprised to see him. A dangerous rival, Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce), head of the East India Co., wants to make him a deal for that land that he can’t refuse. Delaney is not a man to be trifled with. He fully intends to hang onto his inheritance for reasons that will become clear.

MY SAY As Hardy fans will attest, there are few other actors who can make a chill go up your spine and then straight back down. It’s a primal chill, a fight-or-flight response, although common sense dictates that “flight” is the best and only course of action. He’s one of the most exciting actors in the world, but this considerable reputation doesn’t merely rest on four obvious films and/or franchises (“Mad Max,” “Dark Knight,” “Inception,” “The Revenant”).

He’s also the star of a number of TV series, most of them unknown to American viewers. In the one that is known, “Peaky Blinders,” he’s the treacherous gang leader Alfie Solomons. (He was also Heathcliff in 2009’s “Wuthering Heights.”) There’s a little Alfie in Delaney, and a little Bill Sikes too — his breakout character in 2007’s “Oliver Twist.” Here he draws upon another iconic character — Marlow, from “Heart of Darkness,” who bore witness to “The horror! The horror!”

Delaney’s a clenched fist in the series’ opener. He stalks a darkened and morally depraved London — the simple act of “walking” is for the weak or craven — and those Hardy eyes pierce the gloom. “I know a few things about the dead,” he hisses. The horror, the horror . . .

Hardy and “Taboo” do a fine job with the atmospherics in the pilot. It’s particularly well-written — Steven Knight, co-creator of this and “Peaky,” does the honors — but neither Hardy nor his Delaney need many words to create either character or tension. A hard, arctic stare that goes a scary beat too long or a shrug of those shoulders do that particular trick. A fine actor, he’s an even more economical one.

So: Will all of this considerable promise suffice to carry a miniseries to conclusion? FX provided the first three episodes, and the evidence is conflicting. Hardy and cast are first-rate, but the story lumbers. At moments it feels like a show that’s groping to find a story — as opposed to one that has a sure-handed grasp of one. And another point to be made: This is a departure for FX, for the simple reason that “Taboo” was also created for the BBC. The body count is low — that’s good — although FX fans may be expecting that clenched fist to cause just a little more damage than it does. They’ll have to wait (and wait).

BOTTOM LINE Hardy’s great — as always — but the story at times can be as turgid as the Thames in winter.

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