Director: Clio Barnard
Writers: Anna Symon, Hania Elkington
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Claire Danes, Clemence Poesy, Frank Dillane, Hayley Squires
Cinematographer: David Raedeker
Editor: Lucia Zucchetti
Streaming on: Apple TV+
The search for a mythical serpent gives way to an exploration of the more familiar human emotions of suspicion, doubt and desire, which slither into the heart of a 19th Century British town and gradually proceed to coil around its inhabitants over six episodes of The Essex Serpent. Stretches of the Apple TV+ show flirt with the potential of veering into thriller territory, sparking doubt over whether the titular serpent is real or imagined, but this question is rarely approached with the urgency it warrants. Instead, this gorgeously shot, richly atmospheric work is interested in how the characters’ differing answers to the central mystery inform how they treat their surroundings and each other. They may find themselves on the precipice of a new century, on the edge of a new scientific breakthrough or on the cusp of a love affair, but rather than building an air of nervy tension, the show uses these developments to establish a sense of a hope that’s then cruelly dashed at various points. Those expecting the show to make good on its promise of folkloric horror, set up in its unnerving opening scene, might be disappointed, but those who surrender to its larger musings will find The Essex Serpent rewarding in its own way.
Before English housewife Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes) sets off in search of the serpent she’s only read about in the papers, she’s terrorised by a monster of a different kind – her abusive husband. Her oppressive loneliness and feeling of being trapped is reinforced early on, through scenes of her being tightly laced into a corset and through the constricting effects of her high collars. Following her husband’s death, Cora, her young son and their maid Martha (Hayley Squires) travel to the desolate, but strikingly beautiful town of Aldwinter, her interest in the serpent enabling her to exercise her agency and experience freedom for the first time in years.
At Aldwinter, shrouded by mist and fog, the show occasionally plays with audience perceptions as the camera rapidly snakes underwater, as if from the point of view of the serpent. Boats upturn and livestock end up decapitated but it doesn’t take long for The Essex Serpent to seamlessly slip back onto shore, to its default slow-burn meditation on faith, the societal structures we must operate within the confines of and the loss that often accompanies love. This is a show that’s more interested in a life lived than in what’s threatening it. Long stretches immerse viewers into the rhythms of small-town life, adding to the atmosphere even as they don’t directly contribute to the plot. Director Clio Barnard, adapting Sarah Perry’s 2016 novel of the same name, displays an astute understanding of small-town dynamics – how scenes of mourning can transform into moments of tender joy and how public displays of revelry can conceal undercurrents of tension and jealousy. The camera catches the characters alone, in moments of private hell, and even slips into their dreams, which lends the show an intimacy. Yet, it never weaponises the characters’ desires against them so it can adopt the guise of a thriller. Instead, their sadness is reflected in the dull blues and greys of the surrounding landscape and set to a score that’s as despondent as any of them.
Barnard contrasts the superstitions of small-town life with the frustrating lack of medical knowledge in the 19th century, crafting a world in which the odds of finding a mythical beast seem just as improbable as performing open-heart surgery. If amateur paleontologist Cora represents a scientific outlook, which leaves room for evolution and potential discovery, local vicar Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston) symbolises religious dogma, which is rigid. One demands a healthy curiosity, the other, an unquestioning belief. The two characters gradually find common ground as the show reveals how both scripture and science require a leap of faith, a shot in the dark. Both can provide comfort to people seeking answers to the things that frighten them. And both can be exclusionary, making those they deem unworthy feel like interlopers. The friction between Will and Cora charges the chilly landscape with a scorching, slow-burn sexual tension, communicated through prolonged gazes and loaded silences.
Danes makes it easy to sympathise with Cora even as her blindspots – either the things she can’t see or those she remains willfully blind to – and her selfishness make their presence insistently felt. Hiddleston lends Will a preacher’s measured way of speaking and a knack for knowing exactly what to say, then peels back these layers to reveal the gnawing turmoil of the man underneath. The actor has the brooding, tortured Byronic hero template down to an art, as at ease defaulting to the character in the wilderness of Aldwinter as he is on a green-screened Marvel set or on a Guillermo del Toro production. As compelling to watch are Martha and Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane), a doctor who befriends Cora after being called in to treat her husband, but the show is all the better when it’s focussed on the interior lives of these characters and far less convincing when it’s spinning flimsy love triangles around them. Its decision to draw out their superficial romantic entanglements is especially frustrating given how the show as a whole displays a thoughtful consideration of the various kinds of love and just how malleable it is – how it can shift from platonic to romantic, from unrequited passion to mutual desire and how it can heal past wounds but also scar anew.
Even as The Essex Serpent simmers away at low heat without any promise of boiling over and its moments of tension sputter and deflate, its innate understanding of human nature is what keeps it immersive. By the end, it doesn’t seem to matter what’s out there. The show establishes that only in the human heart do the stillest waters run deep.