Review: 'The Essex Serpent' Captivates, Wraps You in Its Coils

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday May 13, 2022

'The Essex Serpent'
'The Essex Serpent'  (Source:AppleTV+)

In his youth, this reviewer lived in Essex, England, during a time when the place was haunted by reports of a mythical "Fen tiger." Skeptics dismissed the creature as a large house cat, inflated in size and ferocity by wild imagination; putative eyewitnesses insisted it was a huge, and possibly dangerous, beast.

Something similar is afoot (or rather, in the water) in the six-episode AppleTV+ miniseries adaptation of Sarah Perry's 2016 novel "The Essex Serpent," which takes place in a fictional marsh-side village called Aldwinter. A series of drownings and reported attacks on fishing boats leaves the village residents convinced that a legendary sea creature has made its return.

The year is 1893, less than a decade after the great Colchester earthquake; a more recent tremor has unsettled the villagers, who readily believe in the creature's existence and quickly conflate the myth with the trappings of religious dogma, deciding that the creature is a manifestation of the Devil, come to punish them for their sins. Ironically, the most level-headed among them is the local vicar, a progressive-minded man named Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston), who pleads with the villagers to invest in reason rather than fear. Alas, method and rationality possess less visceral power than blind terror and its consequences, which range from the local children falling into fits (not unlike those in "The Crucible," Arthur Miller's play about the Salem Witch Trials) to the local schoolmaster, Mr. Evansford (Michael Jibson), smearing the blood of a sacrificial goat all over the place.

Recently-widowed Londoner and amateur paleontologist Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes) stirs things up further when she arrives in town, eager to investigate what she suspects might be a "living fossil" — in plain English, she thinks it might be a plesiosaur. English society has been rattled by the theories of Charles Darwin, and a new branch of science is growing up around the kinds of fossils that academically minded people have begun collecting from places like Aldwinter. Cora's interest in the new science is apt; she has been marked by the imprint of her own monster, both on her flesh and in her emotional bedrock, having been subjected to years of abuse by her late husband. These torments have left Cora with what we now call PTSD, and it's not helped by the fact that the men around her — and one or two women, as well — tend to fall in love with her, including both Will and, back in London,, pioneering surgeon Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane), who pursues Cora to the village in hopes that throwing a party for her birthday will show her his devotion. Unintended consequences for all ensue.

The series is beset by some heavy-handed symbolism — Luke's ambition is to perfect cardiac surgery; a priceless vase in Cora's London home has been broken and soldered back together with gold, giving it a look that's both beautiful and tragic — and social commentary so overt that it can, like a serpent's bite, be painfully pointed. The show's views on misogyny, superstition, male entitlement, and social justice are write distractingly large, nowhere more so than in a scene taking place in Aldwinter's one-room schoolhouse, where the village children fall into a communal frenzy right out of the afore-mentioned "The Crucible" — if you want to compare it to past precedent — or a Florida classroom in the not-so-distant future. (Given the enmity that state's legislature has shown recently toward factuality and reason, not to mention LGBTQ+ youth, one expects similar scenes of panicked othering and literal demonization to erupt there by the end of the current school year, or, at the latest, by the middle of the next.)

There's also what feels like an odd, perhaps inadvertent, parallel to "Ammonite," the 2020 lesbian drama by Francis Lee that was set in a similar time and milieu. There are some interesting possibilities hinted at around this, but, alas, they lead nowhere.

Still, this adaptation's six episodes are abuzz with plot, heated character interplay, cooling (often damply chilling) cinematography, and a melancholy, gorgeous music score by composers Dustin O'Halloran and Herdís Stefánsdóttir that is enough, all on its own, to whisk you into world of mystery and yearning. Credit the show's compelling atmospherics with these elements as much as Clio Barnard's direction or the fully-invested, transformative performances by Danes and Hiddleston.

"The Essex Serpent" premieres exclusively on AppleTV+ on May 13.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.