Tom Hardy is a bit of an enigma. From his rise to fame in Nicolas Winding-Refn’s Bronson to his portrayal of Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, there have been times when it’s felt like we were witnessing a legend in the making. He was also impressive in Warrior, The Revenant and Locke (the latter being a highly underrated flick, and perhaps my favorite Hardy role). Actually, his filmography is littered with damn-good movies (Mad Max, Legend, Inception, et. al). But the more I’ve seen him, the more I’ve wondered, Is Tom Hardy a great actor or simply a charming, bi-polar psychopath who convincingly plays several hyperbolic iterations of himself?
I pose this question in thinking back to when Hardy mania was at fever-pitch, around 2014. Teasers of his new role in Peaky Blinders had me wondering if some Daniel Day-esque transformation from mere mortal to acting god was about to occur. The table was set for the next Bill the Butcher to carve his mark into cinematic infamy.
But then Blinders slogged out his mumbly, odd-for-odd’s sake character of Alfie Solomons—not a bad role, and perhaps one that was more the writers’ fault than his own, but still a bit of an anticlimactic thud in contrast with the reckoning that was Bane. And more importantly, one that brought the realization that, well, maybe this guy is just a very interesting character actor.
That’s not a segue into saying Hardy is one-note—his dramatic range is vast. But as he’s developed his laundry list of highly entertaining roles, I’ve seen a common thread: they’re almost all iterations of a morally conflicted, maniacal he-man with a glint of unpredictable deviance flitting across his expressive eyes. Which leads me to believe that he’s either the most typecast actor of all time or, likelier, less of a transformational talent than simply one of the most brilliantly unique character actors in film. (Here’s looking at you, Michael Shannon.)
I say this all to set the stage for what is perhaps “the most Tom Hardy role” of Tom Hardy’s career—his turn as British gangster Freddie Jackson in the four-part 2008 Sky 1 series The Take, an engrossing and depraved epic filmed right on the cusp of Hardy’s rise to household name.
The Take opens with Freddie being released from a prison stint in 1984, right back into the anonymous slums where his life of crime began. Freddie’s story is common, Scarface-esque—the brash, fearless young hurricane who could give a fuck about the old school rules of criminal code. Not interested in “waiting in line” for his rise, he begins bashing heads, making enemies and causing overall havoc—all as his crime don (a steely, menacing Brian Cox) attempts to call the shots while inside prison walls.
The yin to Freddie’s maniacal yang is his cousin and only trusted confidant, Jimmy (Shaun Evans), a scrawny, posh-looking Hugh Grant stand-in who makes up for his meekness with calculating business wiles. The key players also include Jimmy’s wife, Maggie (Charlotte Riley, Hardy’s real-life spouse), always looking to steer Jimmy away from Freddie’s mayhem. And there’s Maggie’s older sister, Jackie (Kierston Wareing), who also happens to be Freddie’s wife. It all makes for an incestuously close crime family, and one that toes a deadly line as rivalries begin to simmer.
Encapsulating ten-plus years of Shakespearean tragedy over just four episodes, The Take has a lot of ground to cover. And to say it does so admirably would be an understatement. It’s first two episodes end on the type of multi-pronged bang that you’d expect most shows 12 episodes to deliver (or in the case of, say, The Walking Dead, more like 80 episodes). With a tight script, a breakneck pace of action, and Hardy, Wareing and Riley’s riveting manifestations of dynamically plotted characters, The Take’s well-fleshed resolution does not feel the least bit rushed.
Wareing, specifically, gives a remarkably devastating performance as the pitiable, hopelessly in love wife of a two-timing, absentee jailbird father (Hardy’s Freddie). It’s almost as if we’re witnessing the precursor to the drunken hot mess she played in Fish Tank—another bleak and superbly acted British slum portrait, released the same year.
Hardy, in turn, manages the feat of being both one of the most thoroughly despicable protagonists I can think of and also the most compelling aspect of a brilliantly acted and scripted series. His Freddie is a fast-talking, psychotic hedonist; a primal animal driven by lust, booze, violence and power. He makes Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito look like a good fella—morally speaking. The extent of Hardy’s dramatic range—even if it’s an iteration of Hardy we’ve seen multiple times—is commanding, especially when he’s at his breaking point.
His character can pretty much be summed up in an early exchange with his boss’ flirtatious sister.
“You’re pushing your luck,” she cautions him.
“Yeh, well that’s what I’m good at,” Hardy responds through a crooked smile.
I have few knocks on The Take, although I have to mention the show’s laughable opening credits. Perhaps to draw in viewers with fireworks, perhaps just out of poor British taste, the show’s seriousness abruptly cuts to a trying-too-hard rock-riff featuring high-contrast graphics of Tom Hardy doing badass things. It’s a clear Guy Ritchie ripoff, and about as tone-deaf to the show’s gravity as re-dubbing the beginning of Schindler’s List with an Andrew WK ballad.
But all said this is a hellishly bleak and well-maneuvered gangster series—more Coppola than Guy Ritchie—and also an early insight into one of the most compelling actors of his generation. If there’s a reason The Take only has a 7.9 on IMDb, it’s probably because it’s too depraved, and its lead too unlikeable for mainstream audiences and critics to stomach.
GRADE: B+ / A-