It’s a pleasure to see Tom Hiddleston outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the doomed conversations about The Next James Bond. Wedged inside the hit-or-miss comic book factory, you occasionally forget he’s a strong, Shakespearean marvel on his own.
And yet, his introduction in Anna Symon's new period drama The Essex Serpent – adapted from Sarah Perry’s 2016 novel – is perhaps as theatrical as the two franchises mentioned above. In a display of rustic masculinity, he wrestles a sheep out of a marsh in late-Victorian Essex. He’s scratched and covered in mud. But he’s not a Heathcliffish brute: he’s the Reverend Will Ransome of the nearby parish, Aldwinter. And thus, he joins the growing list of alluring and fictional men of the cloth.
His actions are observed and assisted by the visiting, aristocratic Londoner Cora Seaborne (a fittingly expressive Claire Danes). Cora’s abusive husband has recently died, freeing her from a loveless marriage. She reads in the paper about the legendary Essex Serpent, an elongated beast that swims around the marshland around Aldwinter. The series opens on the Serpent's first supposed victim, who asks forgiveness for her sins before being taken.
Unable to sit still, Cora ventures to Essex with her socialist housemaid Martha (Hayley Squires) and potentially autistic son Frankie (Caspar Griffiths) to investigate the Serpent as an amateur naturalist. Turning from enemies to friends to polite admirers, she and Will develop a will-they-won't-they as the latter's wife Stella (Clémence Poésy) waits at home. Initially, The Essex Serpent performs as vital viewing, and its weekly episodic structure (Apple's standard practice) will wrap you into the mystery.
The absorbing historical context embraces the triangular friction between science, religion and superstition – each represented by Cora, Will, and the frightened villagers. Cora believes the beast to be an example of ‘escaped evolution’, Will denies its existence altogether, and many of the village folk retreat into mass delusion following a number of marshland casualties.
Director Clio Bernard maintains a close eye on the main players with cinematographer David Raedecker (The Souvenir), crafting such intense and beautiful shots of their faces. You’re invested: the characters are built with Dickensian idiosyncrasies as well as seductive stares, rising to a gripping love hexagon.
With Bernard's grim and gloomy atmosphere, Symon writes this like a detective drama where the killer is potentially a plesiosaur. The series weaves together the watery history of Francis Lee’s period romance Ammonite with Robert Eggers’s spiritually scary The Witch and The Lighthouse (even sharing ominous seagulls and possessed children). This navigation of many genres at once – folk horror, monster thriller, period romance – turns into a daring juggling act… at first.
The series collapses in the second half, events turning preposterously melodramatic and weirdly irrelevant. As if bored by the rising paranoia in Aldwinter, the story abandons the hysterical village in favour of the metropolitan comforts of London. Various social and political subplots open up, and you wonder why you're here after the enticing, rural tone had been established.
And then those threads, tugged for hours, snap with disappointing results: culminating in a mediocre, anticlimactic compromise, over which the characters have very little influence. To have unsatisfying answers after waves of mythological ambiguity is perhaps the point, but shows The Essex Serpent isn’t as daring or fascinating as it appears – like finding an apparently valuable fossil that crumbles into dirt.
The Essex Serpent is available on Apple TV+ from Friday 13 May, with episodes dropping weekly.
|What||The Essex Serpent, Apple TV+ review|
13 May 22 – 13 May 23, ON APPLE TV+
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