To what do we owe the honour? From whose fevered imagination springs this story so fully formed and bursting with so much talent it can scarcely be counted? Like a filthy river stirred up and choking with organic matter, it needs not rely on endless chatter to drive the narrative forward but a pleasing silence and quietude as each bitter scene flows to the next, absent only tranquility. We are heading for the rapids.
James Delaney, the lead character, is a man with a past. We have learned through scraps of conversation and confounding flashback sequences that he is a son and heir to a small port off what is now the coast of British Columbia. His father, an Englishman, bought his mother in a trade of “a few beads” making James of dubious lineage, something his societal enemies make much of. His mother has already succumbed to the pressures of society and was installed as a madwoman in Bethlehem Hospital, known as Bedlam, until her death. Or did she try to drown her only son?
James, to put it mildly, is abjectly tortured by his past. He remarks that he heard the dead singing to him as a child. It appears he left home to join the British Navy, as a non-commissioned officer, a trade with a higher mortality rate than Ebola, with no intention of returning alive or even living long. Perhaps it was his mysterious and unhealthy attraction to his half sister that drove him way. He says that he was driven half mad by a certain power he possessed but could not control, nor understand within his Judeo-Christian purview. A great many things happened during his travails and each passing episode enlightens us further but what is known is that out there in the distant seas and certainly off the edge the known world, James learned to control himself. He is a man fully formed, a man of purposeful intent, a true devil in disguise. And there is no rest for the wicked.
James is a character study of contradictions. He can read minds but not facial expressions. He is a sociopathic serial killer but he loathes to see a woman harmed, or even threatened with harm. In the form of a succubus he abuses his sister with unwelcome nocturnal visits but breaks it off when she is free to entertain it. He tolerates a woman he believes to have poisoned his father to live in his home, even buying her red roses. And then there are the voodoo hexes, shamanistic rituals involving feathers, fire and what looks to be paprika, a torso covered in Polynesian tattoos and terrifying visions of Maori and First Nations that people his dreams.
James is content to always be in the mud. He is on the ground wrestling his would be murderers to the death, harming their feet, wading in whore’s piss, awaking hungover and face deep in a wet riverbank. Is James truly a demon? Empty churches prove no difficulty but he can’t seem to attend, or must abide by, religious ritual. He watches funerals from a safe distance. His beloved half sister (twin sister?) is exorcised nearly to death yet he does nothing. He digs his rivals grave but cannot bed the widow until the corpse is safely buried. Like Death, James rides a pale horse. Like the Lone Ranger, it communicates with him. Like a specter, James evades being shot at. Like a lunatic, he often wanders about pantless (when all the world pants that Tom Hardy should be shirtless). Like Twin Peaks, there seems to be something malicious in the forest haunting civilized society, feeding on innocents. Also like Twin Peaks the scenes seem to repeat themselves. The clerk races twice to the Delaney home to warn James of being betrayed. Ships are destroyed by fire, by flood, by sheer force of will. Ships have names, change names, change cargo, change ownership. One is left to wonder then is it merely mimicking the wheel of time, or evoking a death spiral.
But James wants a ship. A ship, A ship, His Kingdom for a ship, to take his merry band of double-crossing henchmen to America. A ship to get past the American blockade. A ship to leave England, but why? Does he suddenly want to become a gentleman farmer, tiling soil for tobacco and cotton? Has he taken a sudden interest in the civil war? Will he sail around Patagonia and lay claim to his tiny meaningless cove? What is out there anyway and why does the honorable East India Company want it so badly they are willing to kill him for it?
Enough of questions, let us luxuriate in what we do know. The role of James’ half-sister as played by Oona Chaplin is varied, astounding. Her performance is a masterclass on subtly pulsing with female rage, a dark Cersei. She is at various times both individually and severally trapped by her abusive husband, his position in society, her half brothers unholy adoration of her body, her religious subjection to guilt and penitence. She has yet to illustrate her true and clear purpose and position, she is still behaving like a trapped animal, but I could stare at her perfect heart-shaped face watching the gears click behind her liquid eyes for as long as it takes. She takes my breathe away. Where did this talented tornado come from? I’m doing a deep dive on her filmography.
The apothecary (played by the genius Tom Hollander) as James’ sidekick, fifth business and unlikely comic relief, his despicable scientist and all around Man Friday is a revelation. I live for the next words out of his mouth; his grey face quoting Shakespeare or listing his preferences for sexual congress. He is vile, true, but his earthy humanity casts James’ vacant eyes into sharp relief. James reminds me of a feral car whose eyes turn black before he attacks. An animal that once possessed the spark of the divine but it has since been beaten out of him.