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Apple TV+’s The Essex Serpent Is Sumptuous, Supernatural Gothic Romance: Review

The Sarah Perry novel gets a rich, romantic adaptation about science, faith, and longing

The Essex Serpent Review
The Essex Serpent (Apple TV+)
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    The Pitch: 1890s England: a time where the rapid rise of scientific knowledge — medicine, technology, archaeology — clashed with Christian superstitions and fairy tales. In the middle is Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes), a woman recently widowed from a wealthy, abusive spouse, who sees the opportunity to find out who she is and what she really wants out of life.

    A fortuitous report out of Essex gives her the chance: A winged, fanged “serpent” is reportedly snatching people up outside the sleepy port town of Aldwinter. Armed with her wits, her interest in “naturalism,” her curious son Francis, and adventurous maid/companion Martha (Hayley Squires), Cora leaves her comfortable London life to solve the mystery once and for all.

    But she quickly finds herself at odds with the paranoid, God-fearing people of the town, who quickly start to suspect her when the body count begins to rise. Her only solace comes in the form of the town vicar Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston), who balances his curiosity about Cora’s search with caring for his deathly ill wife Stella (Clémence Poésy). Before long, whether the creature exists or not becomes less important than the human loves, hates, and beliefs with which Cora and Will have to contend.

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    A Liberated Woman: Sarah Perry’s 2016 novel The Essex Serpent was a surprise smash hit, a sizzling Gothic romance with more than a hint of the supernatural, teeming with natural life and the religious paranoia that comes with the unknown. To their great credit, Perry (who adapts her own novel), co-writer Anna Symon (the 2019 series Deep Water), and director Clio Barnard (Dark River — I’m sensing a theme) capture that writhing, pensive spirit of the book across six well-paced episodes, buoyed by an incredible cast and tactile, sensitive filmmaking.

    Be forewarned: This is hardly the kind of Victorian X-Files pastiche that early trailers and the logline might imply. The titular serpent that terrorizes the people of Aldwinter (and seemingly sends its children into fits of collective psychosis in one chilling sequence) may or may not exist; Cora thinks it does, her idealistic search fueled at least a little bit by her search for purpose after finally escaping the prison of societal expectations. Will, on the other hand, believes it myth, paradoxically skeptical even in his deep and abiding faith.

    The Essex Serpent (Apple TV+)

    The Essex Serpent (Apple TV+)

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    And both have to contend with the workaday people of the town, who fully buy that the serpent is real and will turn on either of them in their shared panic for answers and accountability. Rituals and recriminations abound, from skinning moles to scare off the creature to witch hunts meant to determine whose sins bring the beast to their shores.

    Indeed, this is where Essex Serpent, in both its forms, feels so invigorating and thematically whole, using the “serpent,” whatever it may be, as a locus for so many of Victorian England’s socioeconomic and cultural conflicts. There’s the collision between science and faith, skepticism and superstition, and the in-group fear that can lead communities to lash out at whatever they don’t understand.

    Aldwinter’s muddy, overcast climes, a burg of unrelenting gloom and shallow moors, carry a kind of perverse beauty, especially through David Raedeker’s exquisitely intimate cinematography. (The score, by Dustin O’Halloran and Herdís Stefánsdóttir, carries the yearning of the winds along every strained bow.)

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    There Are So Many Ways to Love: On top of the show’s exploration of faith and fear, The Essex Serpent is, at its core, a love story, and a cracking one at that. Danes (who took over for Keira Knightley at the last minute, after the Pirates of the Caribbean star couldn’t find appropriate childcare accommodations for the COVID-era shoot) is a lovely lead, and it’s nice to see her in emotionally grounded form after so many years as the isolated, bipolar protagonist of Homeland.

    Her Cora is open-hearted and loving, with edges of trauma only occasionally bubbling to the surface; she plays every scene as if she’s born anew, a baby bird just starting to flap her wings. Contrast that with Hiddleston’s swoon-worthy smolder as Father Ransome, a man with a suitably romance-novel set of dilemmas — the tall, sexy priest with a beautiful wife who’s dying of one of those TV diseases that keeps you beautiful until the very end; the lingering feelings for a new love that cannot be, because the doomed woman you’re with is still here.

    The Essex Serpent (Apple TV+)

    The Essex Serpent (Apple TV+)

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    Perry and Symon slather even more layers onto this love triangle: There’s boyish city surgeon Dr. Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane), who harbors his own feelings for Cora but clashes with Ransome’s religiosity; his own path through the series is suitably tragic, interlaced with the budding origins of modern surgery that lend sections of the series no small number of comparisons to The Knick.

    And Martha’s wrapped up in all of it, a thoroughly modern woman (she’s a proud socialist!) whose physical and emotional closeness to both Luke and Cora further complicates things. Cora and Will’s unfulfilled romance feels at once meant to be and held back by all manner of deeply human impulses — pride, stubbornness, guilt over the betrayal of others. It’s precisely that high-keeled sense of longing that makes their interactions so tantalizing. (That, and of course the sight of Danes in sleek, tweed longcoats and a mud-covered Hiddleston in a fluffy scarf and tattered sweater. Look out, Hot Priest!)

    The Verdict: Does the Essex Serpent exist or not? While we may get answers by the time the final episode fades to black, it’s also clear that the titular creature is just a springboard to explore the Victorian repressions of its characters.

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    That its main cast feels like seekers of truth in their own ways, both rational and emotional, make them so very compelling — beautiful people searching for answers with tools that haven’t yet been honed to provide them. As historical fiction, as sleepy Gothic romance, as an understated showcase for its cast and crew’s talents, it’s impossible to escape The Essex Serpent‘s unexpected charms.

    Where’s It Playing? The Essex Serpent hunts for monsters and finds them in our hearts on Apple TV+ May 13th.

    Trailer:

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