Apple TV+ review: The Essex Serpent
Katherine McLaughlin | On 13, May 2022
This is a spoiler-free review based on all six episodes.
The epigraph in Sarah Perry’s gothic novel, The Essex Serpent, is a quote from Michel de Montaigne, On Friendship: “If you press me to say why I loved him, I can say no more than because he was he, and I was I.” The complications of companionship are a major theme in the novel and they are beautifully rendered in this six-part adaptation directed by Clio Barnard and written by Anna Symon. Set at the turn of the century at the end of the 1800s, a time of great change and progression, the multiple characters contemplate reason and faith, science and religion, love and loyalty, and navigate the chains of patriarchy and poverty as they strike up new relationships and go on adventures to fulfil their passions and potential.
Widow, Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes) isn’t so much grieving the death of her husband, but relieved and relishing her new-found freedom away from a brutish partner. For the first time in her life, she is able to traverse her own path, and so she decides to head to Essex from London for a little paleontological exploration amid the rumour of a mystical serpent in the village of Aldwinter. While there, she meets dashing a vicar, Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston), and they forge a strong connection as they challenge one another’s belief systems. Clémence Poésy plays Stella, Will’s wife, who is dealing with her mortality, Frank Dillane plays cutting-edge surgeon Luke, who is sweet on Cora and Hayley Squires is perfectly cast as Martha, Cora’s savvy housekeeper who is determined to enact change with a social housing bill.
Visually, the show is painterly and really embraces the gothic, with remote watery locations and vast windy fields in Essex providing stunning backdrops for characters to wander alone in their thoughts. The aching and longing, and all that repression becomes part of the landscape, and it’s thrilling when all those desires and feelings finally explode on screen in a later episode. Cora’s emotions are conveyed with dreamy pink skies or murky marshes, as the locals become superstitious of her unconventional behaviour. Aerial shots of the Essex locations, with cinematography by David Raedeker and an elegant score, provide a potent atmosphere laced with intrigue and menace.
In the book, Cora is vulnerable and naïve yet determined. Danes delivers a performance that convinces us of these traits for the most part, but she occasionally veers into exaggeration. The same can be said for Hiddleston, who sells the brooding but over-performs at times. Squires is as ever on top form, with a versatile turn as a working-class hero who switches between wise and indignant – and at one point mischievously tipsy.
If you’ve read the book, some of the cliff-hangers aren’t especially tense, but the show does veer away from the text at points so there are still surprises in store. This solid adaptation captures the spirit of friendship at the heart of the book, while offering up an invigorating portrait of a woman ahead of her time, weighed down by an oppressive society, yet still unafraid to push boundaries to achieve her goals.