The barest bones of “The Essex Serpent” make up a familiar enough story, whether taking place today or, as this new limited series does, in the late nineteenth century. An ambitious and attractive woman, seeking answers about what she should do next with her life, leaves the big city for a small town, where she meets an equally attractive man and finds that everything is more complicated than it seems. It’s a narrative with huge potential to bore, but Anna Symon’s adaptation of the Sarah Perry novel (premiering May 13 on Apple TV+) carefully layers it with more probing questions about love, loss, and faith. In its most distinctive moments, “The Essex Serpent” is far richer than skimming along its briny surface might otherwise suggest. In its weaker ones, it indulges a vein of melodrama that doesn’t quite suit it.
After her abusive husband dies, leaving her with wealth and the sudden possibility of being able to live a life she actually wants, Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes) decides to leave London and follow her scientific curiosities elsewhere. When a newspaper article about a fisherman’s town being plagued by a mysterious “serpent” catches her eye, it’s only a matter of time before Mrs. Seaborne fulfills the promise of her surname and decamps to the coast with her quiet son (Caspar Griffiths, stealthily giving one of the show’s best performances) and live-in maid Martha (Hayley Squires, bringing some necessary blunt force).
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In Essex, fear hangs thick in the salty air. Director Clio Barnard makes the most of filming on location, capturing the town’s often oppressive atmosphere with gorgeous, eerie shots of the undulating water teasing everyone’s imaginations. The intricacy of Jane Petrie’s costume design and Alice Normington’s production design work together to create not just historical accuracy, but vivid tableaus of the characters’ most intimate lives. In an ever-broadening landscape of streaming shows seemingly shot in the same exact flat way, “The Essex Serpent” has an incredible texture to it. Even at its most unnerving, the series is impossible not to absorb like a humid fog permeating the skin.
And yet, the show isn’t ultimately about the town that lures Cora out of London’s lush comforts. In fact, the only true local who gets much color at all is Mary (Lily-Rose Aslandogdu, excellent), a young girl whose older sister seemingly got taken by the serpent and is now convinced it’s coming for her next. It’s a shame that the story doesn’t get more of an insider perspective, especially as the series launches the town into chaos before largely abandoning it in the second half. After Cora gets too entangled with a married vicar (Tom Hiddleston), whose gentle empathy came as such a shock when she first encountered it, she flees back to London, where the final two episodes largely take place. (Danes has long been an expert at conveying flabbergasted surprise, and puts that skill to constant use here as Cora realizes just how many people in this series are in love with her.)
As Father Will, Hiddleston deploys his earnest gaze to its most optimal use. Barnard’s camera is always well aware of just how tall he is and rarely hesitates to emphasize it. In turn, Symon’s scripts make an obvious (and genuinely amusing) attempt to acknowledge his almost staggering handsomeness, with everyone from Cora to her pining surgeon friend Luke (Frank Dillane) doing a double take when they realize that he’s the vicar. Hiddleston and Danes sell their characters’ quick bond, which is intense enough to draw the notice of Will’s ailing wife, Stella (Clémence Poésy, turning a potentially wan role into a more impressively nuanced portrait of a woman finding her strength from within).
As pairs, both Will and Cora and the actors portraying them are most convincing when acting as confidantes. Will’s skeptical approach to faith and Cora’s faith-based approach to science go from clashing to compatible in record time thanks to Hiddleston and Danes’ depictions. Where “The Essex Serpent” falls prey to more clichés, then, is in telling the story of Will and Cora’s blossoming, forbidden love. Danes acquits herself well in the moments when Cora has to reckon with her overwhelming feelings, and there’s hardly anyone better in the tortured romance game than Hiddleston. But after briefly exploring so many other tantalizing avenues — the serpent’s grip on an increasingly fanatical town, Cora’s love of science bumping up against her subconscious instincts, Martha’s boldness belying her secret desires — that it becomes a disappointment to see this romance subsume all else.
As the series briefly loses itself in love and London, though, it’s at least easier to understand how that brackish Essex water lured so many people to its jagged edges. Even if there might be a serpent lurking, at least there’s something more extraordinary about the possibilities therein.
“The Essex Serpent” premieres Friday, May 13 on Apple TV+.
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