The Essex Serpent: Ambitious, Beautiful, if Slow and Stately

It’s a known fact that gothic tales are meant for winter nights. AppleTV begs to differ with their new offering.

Tom Hiddleston The Essex Serpent

It’s a known fact that Gothic tales are meant for winter nights. AppleTV begs to differ with their new offering. This is the long-awaited six-part adaptation of Sarah Perry’s best-selling novel The Essex Serpent, directed by Clio Barnard (riding high after the recent big screen success of Ali & Ava).

The award-winning book, published in 2016, was a darkly sensual musing on faith, rationality and temptation; brooding and shadowy, but an absolute page-turner too. How can Sarah Perry’s fantastic lyrical prose be reconciled in a TV script?

In London we meet Cora (Claire Daines with an arresting strawberry blonde hairdo), a brittle young widow, traumatised by a particularly nasty abusive relationship. Having outlived him, she’s now working out what exactly to do with her new freedom. Yet another widow drama. We’ve had a rash of shows recently dealing with spouse loss in any number of ways, presenting the survivors all along the spectrum of victims to villains. Could this be a reaction to Covid lockdowns, where people found themselves longing for freedom so desperately, so totally sick of each other’s company they could have cheerfully fantasied committing murder?

Cora’s rather ghoulish flirtation with Dr Luke Garret seems to be progressing nicely. He’s a big-shot pioneering surgeon, despite looking all of 17 years old. He’s keen to have a go at cardiac surgery in a hospital that looks like it barely believes in germ theory. Despite killing patients left and right, he’s very comfortable calling himself a genius. You wonder if Luke has ever heard the story of Icarus.

Tom Hiddleston Claire Danes

Cora isn’t hanging around to get saddled with husband number two. Her hobby/obsession, or hobsession, is natural history. She’s Mary Anning without the bonnet. Fascinated by newspaper reports of an enormous Essex Nessie, she packs up and sets off to seek out this prehistoric monster. The late 19th century is backdrop to the action, a time of great social change, with all the old traditions and certainties in flux. The characters may not say it out loud as such, but they’re all touched by the fear of the future that goes hand-in-hand with change. 

Cora’s entourage are son Frankie, who has autistic traits and loves collecting almost as much as his mother does, and Martha, her salt-of-the-earth but educated and inquisitive companion. Hayley Squires’ sincere and astute performance makes you look forward to spending more time with the character, and we do in the second episode as she campaigns for safe housing and an end to the London slums.

The supposed sea monster is bothering the residents of the village of Aldwinter with livestock being killed and teenager Gracie missing. Immediately Matha is not a fan of the area. Cora says “It’s not so bad” and Martha retorts “It’s witch-burning country”. The beautiful but desolate shores are built for eel fishing and the flat grassland for striding around purposefully in long flowing coats. This is a community plagued by fear of what lurks beneath and blessed by excellent knitwear. It has a bleak, romantic quality, like Wuthering Heights but flat as a pancake. In a James Herriot-style sheep rescue meet cute, Cora gets wet and muddy with Will (Tom Hiddleston) the hot vicar, a big fan of the sensible jumper himself. He’s firm in his belief that serpent is nothing but a silly myth, but not so dim-witted that he doesn’t realise he trades in those himself every Sunday. He’s trying to suppress local superstition and keep his flock from panicking but they’re out with torches scouring the marsh at dusk looking for the beast. Pitchforks optional, but in-keeping with the vibes.

Starting a pattern of putting her foot in it, Cora brings her spooky big city widow energy to the tiny church but, despite being warned, sits in the unlucky pew alongside an ancient carving of a snake. Serpents, of course, have always had a contentious relationship with Christians.

Tom Hiddleston Essex Serpent

No word as yet on whether this one enjoys apples. Top recipe tip: put your apples in a pie and serve it with custard if you really want to tempt us sinners.

Don’t be afraid, says Will from the pulpit in a voice that barely convinces anyone. Naturally it’s right at that moment a desperate man runs into the church to instigate a full-scale search for the missing girl. Sure enough, her body is found out on the salt marshes. Is she a victim of the misty and treacherous landscape, lost her footing and drowned? Probably. But do the fearful villagers see it as clear proof of the sneaky, spiteful serpent? Of course they do. Will is stuck, uncomfortable with Cora’s belief in rational science and evolution despite them being allies in the search for truth, and uncomfortable with his irrational congregation. So much for the quiet life of a country vicar.

Give this a little time. It’s slow, stately, some might say slithery progress in episode one. I’m happy to stick with it because I know the story is worth it, as long as this adaptation stays true to the book. It’s fairly grim in places, with death, grinding poverty, scenes of surgery, and a menacing horror lurking just out of sight. But it’s ambitious, beautiful, and touches on many important historical themes, giving us an insight into the opposing forces that gave birth to the 20th century. Also, here be monsters. Maybe.

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