The Essex Serpent Review

The Essex Serpent
London, 1893. Rumours of a sea creature terrorising the people of Aldwinter, Essex compel newly widowed naturalist Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes) to leave the city and investigate. Forming an unlikely bond with pastor William Ransome (Tom Hiddleston), science and faith collide as the pair try to uncover the truth.

by Jordan King |

Streaming on: Apple TV+

Episodes viewed: 6 of 6

No matter what Steven Spielberg says, we all know that Jaws isn’t really about a shark. Similarly, The Essex Serpent, Apple TV’s lavish new period drama is – despite its title – not really about a snake. Sure, rumours of a mythic creature stalking Essex’s Blackwater Estuary hook us in, setting this Gothic six-parter’s plot in motion, but there’s far more beneath the surface here than mere monsters. Adapted from Sarah Perry’s bestselling novel by director Clio Barnard (The Arbor) and screenwriter Anna Symon, it’s the series’ slow-burning, philosophically profound and sensuously-infused study of science, faith, love, and longing in late Victorian England that makes it so gripping.

The Essex Serpent

Split in setting between the hustle and bustle of the Big Smoke and the rural, almost arcane village of Aldwinter – a place where sea, land, and sky blur in a portentously shot, foggy haze – the series centres on Claire Danes’ naturalist Cora Seaborne and Tom Hiddleston’s reverend William Ransome. For Cora, a woman ahead of her time who’s brought to life with ingenue-esque curiosity, flinty determination, snazzy trousers, and a superb British accent by a mercurial Danes, the rumours of the Blackwater beast are exciting. For one thing, they represent a chance to pursue her paleontological passions, following in archeologist Mary Anning’s footsteps. For another, they offer an opportunity for her to leave the city and start afresh with son Frankie after her abusive husband’s death. And so, with Socialist nanny Martha (a spirited Hayley Squires) and maverick heart surgeon and confidante Luke Garrett (a creepy Frank Dillane – he’s just too Tom Riddle) in tow, Cora and Frankie head for the coast.

Clio Barnard’s first foray into TV is ultimately every bit as enthralling, meticulously detailed, and beautifully human as her big screen offerings.

What Cora doesn't count on when she arrives is meeting William. He’s a brooding figure of strained stoicism and trenchant faith, the pillar of a community whose God-fearing populace – whipped into a frenzy by paranoiac Father Matthew (Mike Jibson) – believe the Devil’s upon them, showing a vulnerability in Hiddleston that we’ve scarcely seen him play before. While Will is happily married to Clemence Poesy’s lovely Stella and ideologically-opposed to Cora (“I’d rather believe in a creature I’ve seen than an invisible God,” she declares early on, while he preaches that “fear is where God lives”), their intellectual debates, insatiable curiosity, and heartfelt concern for one another’s inner turmoil draw them closer. Danes and Hiddleston’s chemistry is palpable, and Barnard’s characteristically sensual direction captures it swooningly. At first, it’s barely-suppressed smiles from across the room and fleeting moments of contact; then it’s an almost-clinch we never actually see; but then they share a slow-dance – all tender close-ups, bodies pressed together, and longing looks – that would give Bridgerton’s Lady Whistledown something to write about.

Reaching beyond the mystery of the serpent (Is it a plesiosaur? A sea monster? The Devil? Witchcraft? All avenues are explored thoroughly) and Cora and Will’s evolving companionship, Barnard and Symon immerse viewers further in the fin-de-siécle through their nimble handling of the series’ subplots and sizeable ensemble. Luke’s surgical experiments bring us into the operating theatre and to the very literal cutting edge of medical science, while Martha’s activism takes us into London’s impoverished, overcrowded slums as she fights the housing crisis – a reminder that 1893 may not be quite so far from 2022 as it otherwise feels. Elsewhere, plot threads such as Stella’s battle with tuberculosis and teenager Naomi’s (Lily-Rose Aslandogdu) struggle with her father’s alcoholism and fear of damnation in the wake of her sister’s disappearance shine a light on the prevailing crises of the era.

Although it takes an episode or two to settle into The Essex Serpent’s intellectual, dialogue-driven groove, Clio Barnard’s first foray into the world of TV is ultimately every bit as enthralling, meticulously detailed, and beautifully human as any of her big screen offerings. It works as an atmospheric Gothic folktale, a lavishly-dressed and -designed period piece, a smouldering romance, a social realist drama, and as a properly involving mystery that builds steadily towards a breathless “Ahh…” of a climax. It’s also, just to reiterate, not about a snake. Or is it?

Gorgeously shot, cleverly crafted, and brimming with intrigue, Clio Barnard’s latest reaffirms her status as one of Britain’s most important directors.
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