The Essex Serpent
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Based on the novel of the same name by Sarah Perry, The Essex Serpent tells the story of a Victorian-era village in the English countryside torn apart by superstition and fear after a girl’s disappearance is blamed on a mythological creature living in the marshes. When a naturalist from London arrives to investigate the science behind the claims she stirs up controversy among the locals, but finds a surprising source of support in the town vicar.
Claire Danes stars as Cora Seaborne opposite Tom Hiddleston as Rev. Will Ransome. You may also recognize Clémence Poésy, who plays Will’s wife Stella, as Fleur Delacour from the Harry Potter films. Another Harry Potter alum, Frank Dillane (young Tom Riddle in Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince) plays Luke Garrett, an ambitious doctor who shares Cora’s passion for scientific discovery. Dillane also spent four seasons as Nick on Fear the Walking Dead.
Science and religion clash in unexpected ways in this stylish, atmospheric series. The Essex Serpent is period drama at its best, making the most of its historical setting (in this case Victorian England) without being too cliché, while also updating the era’s sensibilities in a way that says something about society today.
And so we have Cora, embodied in all her multi-layered richness by Claire Danes. Newly released from an unhappy marriage after the death of her husband, Cora is self-determined and eager to explore her newfound freedom as a widow. This includes indulging her fascination with science and the natural world, though being a Victorian lady she’s not permitted to pursue it as anything other than a hobby. Nevertheless, determined to prove her hypothesis about the existence of the fabled Essex Serpent—that it could actually be a living fossil which somehow escaped evolution—she sets out from London and finds more than she bargained for in a provincial village bordering the marshes.
On the other side of the coin, there’s Tom Hiddleston’s Will. He’s well read and open minded, a voice of reason cutting through the hysteria. Hardly what you’d expect from a country vicar, especially in this time period. Will is way beyond his parishioners in terms of progressive ideas, which makes for an interesting tension when he’s one of the first people to consider Cora’s scientific explanation. It’s nice to see Hiddleston take on a more humble and grounded role here, a stark contrast to the overly dramatic Loki in the MCU, the role he’s best known for playing. It’s a testament to his range that he makes this character both compelling and believable.
In religious philosophy, the serpent often represents temptation. As the story goes, it was the serpent who gave Eve the apple from the tree of knowledge, then she gave it to Adam. It’s also a symbol of the demons we are capable of conjuring when looking for a simple, external explanation of wrongdoing, or someone to blame. The story plays on these ideas in several ways. First, there’s the palpable chemistry between Cora and Will, a married man of faith tempted by this curious woman of science. There are also hints that something else is going on in the village, something more human and more sinister than any creature of folklore. Writer Anna Symon, who adapted Sarah Perry’s novel for this series, offers no easy explanations, keeping the audience off balance and second-guessing whether there really is something supernatural at work or not.
The production design hits the sweet spot between being strictly faithful to the time period and modernizing the visual elements. For those who pay attention to costume design, there are some gorgeous knits and exquisite outerwear on display (seriously, Cora’s long coat is to die for). Some of them wouldn’t look out of place if you saw them walking down the street today. The color palette of the countryside is decided moody, mainly muted blues and grays mixed with earth tones. It’s all quite calming, actually. At least until all that underlying tension finally pays off.
Like the mythical creature of the title, The Essex Serpent slowly draws you out to sea and before you know it you’re in deep, totally immersed.
Anyone with an interest in Victorian history or folklore will find this right up their alley. It might be a little slow for the family to watch together, but it’s great to curl up to with a nice cup of tea.