Apple TV has released the much-anticipated adaptation of Sarah Perry’s bestseller, The Essex Serpent, starring Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston. The six-part drama was adapted by Anna Symon and directed by Clio Barnard. It is a richly-textured, moody series with a creeping slow pace foreboding a very intriguing story of myth, religion and lusty longing.
Set in late 19th century England, The Essex Serpent follows Cora Seaborne (played by Claire Danes), a widow with a passion for palaeontology, who moves from her home in London, after her husband’s death, to a seaside village in Essex with her son Frankie and her socialist companion Martha (played by Hayley Squires). After hearing of a sighting of a mythical creature, a giant serpent, Cora wants to investigate this mystery further. She meets local vicar, Will Ransom (played by Tom Hiddleston), who is sceptical of the serpent’s existence.
The Essex Serpent is a gripping series with nuanced performances from its two lead actors, as the mystery of the serpent unleashes an unlikely bond between Cora and local vicar Will.
The opening of the series foreshadows what’s to come. In the gloomy estuary that coils through the misty marshes, a young woman is washing herself, asking for forgiveness for her sins with a man she calls a snake. Her sister watches, and runs away the second she sees her being attacked by something in the water. The symbol of the serpent is made clear from the beginning, and its abundance of metaphors, whether from religion, folklore or Greek mythology, such as sexuality, original sin, death, re-birth, is scattered throughout the series.
The news of this giant serpent reaches recently widowed Cora in London. Through the use of flashbacks in the guises of nightmares that plague Cora, the series slowly reveals Cora to be, not a grieving widow, but a modern-thinking woman, free from the clutches of an abusive husband. There is a sense that her husband kept her imprisoned both mentally and physically in their London home, as Cora tells Luke Garrett (played by Frank Dillane), a heart surgery doctor she quickly befriends in London, that now her husband is dead, she can do what she likes.
In Aldwinter, Cora finds in Will an intellectual opponent, as they battle between faith and reason. The man of belief is sceptical of the existence of the serpent, he quite adamantly thinks there is no serpent. Whereas, the modern woman from the city, who tells this local vicar she does not believe in God, believes in the existence of the creature. The story opposes thinking and believing, questioning the meaning of the two. For local man Cracknell, the village outcast because he does not go to church, the distinction is clear. The serpent isn’t a question of belief for him, he tells her, suggesting that if there is indeed a serpent, it certainly isn’t the incarnation of the devil, as villagers are set in believing. However, this distinction is murky for Cora, as she tells Will, she, herself, is not sure of the difference between thinking and believing. For Cora, science also requires faith.
The attraction and growing tension between Cora and Will, who is already married to Stella (played by Clémence Poésy), will appeal to audiences, as the their two characters are inevitably drawn to each other. Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston play convincingly with their onscreen chemistry. Claire Danes’ performance as Cora is particularly captivating, in her sense of wonder, when her character speaks about the science she is so passionate about, and in her seething fragility in the trauma of her past with her abusive husband.
There is a heaviness to this series, in the heavy textured winter clothes everyone wears, in the dense misty atmosphere, the dark gloomy interiors. Clio Barnard has here created a Gothic and tactile atmosphere to Sarah Perry’s story.
The Essex Serpent is on apple TV+ since May 13, with a new episode every week.