Now playing on Apple TV+ The Essex Serpent, adapted from Sarah Perry’s novel, is not your typical television mini-series. Starring Tom Hiddleston and Claire Danes, and set in the later part of the 19th century in Great Britain, the show is a mixture of romance, fantasy, and a textured study of human behaviour.
Danes plays the recently widowed Cora Seaborne. As we see through a series of flashbacks her husband routinely physically abused her and kept her caged up in their London house. An intelligent and inquisitive women, an amateur palaeontologist, after this long period of oppression she is driven to find something to do.
When stories of a mysterious creature, a serpent of some sort, taking people in Essex appear in the news, she’s driven to discover more. Certain that the Essex Serpent is some sort of living fossil – a creature that managed to survive down the centuries, she sets out with her son and her live in companion to find out more.
Here she meets the Reverend Will Ransome, played by Hiddleston. Although he’s happily married with two children there’s an immediate attraction between him and Cora. Initially however that takes a back seat as fear and rumour have taken over the town. The frightened and superstitious people think they have done something wrong to draw the horrible curse of the Essex Serpent down upon them.
When Cora tries to convince people there’s nothing good nor evil about the Serpent she runs into the stone wall of irrationally that will rebuff every attempt at reason. In fact her attempts to alleviate fears only reacts to a scene reminiscent of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible as a schoolroom full of children accuse the sister of the taken girl of being the cause of all the problems as she is evil.
Hiddleston and Danes are both wonderful actors, so it’s no surprise they’re able to deliver wonderfully nuanced performances. However, the show seems to be trying to do too much in a short period of time. For in its six parts they’ve crammed in not only the story of the Essex Serpent, but subplots about the lack of proper housing in London for working people, breakthroughs in medical science, and a couple of other of love interests.
While I applaud attempts at trying to be loyal to source material it’s also important to find ways to incorporate the material into an adaptation without making it feel too cluttered. There are true moments of magic in this show that make it a joy to watch, but it feels like they have been truncated in the quest to cram more into the allotted space than was possible. Maybe if the series had been expanded beyond six episodes it would have helped.
However, The Essex Serpent is still far better than your average television show and the quality of acting throughout is exceptional. Watch it for those reasons if for no others.