In “The Essex Serpent”, which was inspired by the novel by Sarah Perry, a monster that may or may not exist emerges. A young girl’s body is discovered horribly chewed up; a long fence of nets intended to capture it is destroyed. A genuine underwater troll no one understands muddles the mental stability of a small town.
However, “The Essex Serpent,” a fascinating and surprising six-episode adaptation now available on Apple TV+, uses this enigma only for surface appeal. The narrative explores other subjects that easily terrify people when they don’t understand them: science; socialism; and progress, with deft performances from Claire Danes, Tom Hiddleston, Clémence Poésy, and Frank Dillane.
Heaven forbid that many of those concepts be developed by a woman on the verge of the 20th century. Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes) is an archaeologist who goes to the little Essex village of Aldwinter in order to investigate and search for fossils. She believes that the beast exists, and that it may have “evolved out of chaos,” establishing its own path. Essexites are a twisted version of the Pawnee in “Parks and Recreation” who think the serpent is payback for their misdeeds. Pastor Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston) is doubtful about the existence of the serpent and tries to dampen his parishioners’ fire and brimstone mentality. Cora makes them even more afraid, especially because she appears at just the wrong moment.
Clio Barnard directs each episode, and she has a great technique for telling a mystery set in the realm of belief. She uses an unsettling tone to decorate the episodes, combining threatening wide shots of Aldwinter’s vast town with jarring close-ups, a powerful blend of classic and innovative filmmaking techniques for a period piece like this. Threatening clouds hover over us at all times, while Dustin O’Halloran and Herdís Stefánsdottir’s chords rumble lower and lower – the series gets a lot of mileage from such rich darkness. Even though the outfits, three-piece suits, and location imply a strong eye for detail in Cora’s sumptuous London realm, the periods there appear to have less appeal.
There are no flat, main characters in this cast, who contribute to make this series far more interesting and comprehensive than if it were simply about the sea creature mystery. Cora forms a near friendship with a workaholic heart surgery doctor named Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane), who plays the role of haughty yet vulnerable. He is seen making medical history and being ignorant of Cora’s mental health, believing he can explain it away with what he read in a book.
There are also lengthy sequences that follow Martha (Hayley Squires), her servant, friend, and housing advocate, who is so socialist that the show appears to name-check it every time she appears on screen. The vicar’s feelings about Cora are complicated in part because of his religion and devotion to Stella (Clémence Poésy). Even while she has a unique approach to their budding attraction, displaying the nuance that comes in not viewing issues in black-and-white, she still provides a powerful presence. These stories aren’t directly connected to the snake, but the performances’ strength demonstrates they don’t have to be.
Cora, at the heart of it all, is the protagonist. The series gets a nuanced and sympathetic account of someone who appears to wreak havoc everywhere they go, even if it’s not their goal. Danes portrays the confusion and anguish she experiences as she navigates the many individuals who want to be with her, Aldwinter townspeople’s embarrassment, and her own trauma from a previous abusive connection that she has escaped by becoming a widower but still has a scar on her neck. Episodes four and five barely mention the serpent in Essex, and they make it clear that Cora’s vitality is a significant snake in everyone else’s path.
The relationship of new widow Cora and hot vicar Will creates a minor fracas throughout “The Essex Serpent.” The conflict, however, will undoubtedly help sell the series. Their mental duels, in which his religious doubt squares up against her scientific knowledge, are more intriguing than the danger of them tumbling together. But at least Danes and Hiddleston have excellent chemistry for these moments when they act like the only people on the marsh: their wistful gazes, the way they kiss with their mouths open as if it were their first kiss; the way he draped his scarf around her neck, dark green as this gloomy tale’s stand-in for warmth.
“The Essex Serpent” may be accused of being too loose with its core enigma, even as it employs serpents for a few too many freaky dream sequences that are scattered throughout the program. But it also fails to consider how much better its abilities are put to use. The film’s pacing is certain in the allure of its writing, cinematography, acting, and so on. “The Essex Serpent” takes a larger risk in letting its characters ruminate. The film successfully creates a full world beyond the marsh, frequently depicting the monster as a revealing topic for discussion.
The complete season has been released for review. The second two episodes of “The Essex Serpent” are now available to watch on CinemaHD, with a new episode each week.
Genre: Period drama
Based: on The Essex Serpent
by Sarah Perry
Written by: Anna Symon
Directed by: Clio Barnard
Country of origin: United Kingdom
Movie Rating: 3.4/5