The following is a review of the entire 6-episode mini-series The Essex Serpent. Nonetheless, I have written the piece in a way to avoid discussing the plot. You can consider this a spoiler-free reflection on the series as a whole.
I cannot quite remember how I found the book, but during my last semester of college, I sat wrapped in a blanket with a glass of wine tearing through Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent. Perry’s sophomore novel, The Essex Serpent enthralled me. A rich tapestry narrative of Victorian England, Perry sinks the hooks with a tense prologue before revealing her deliciously obstinate heroine Cora Seaborne. Channeling a similar penchant for literary excavation to what Ian McEwan unfurls in Atonement, Perry layers the stylngs of a period costume melodrama on a murky yarn of folklore and magical realism. Add to that an almost love triangle and the Essex countryside and you end up with an exquisite novel. All of which is to say I have awaited Apple TV+’s mini-series adaptation with bated breath. Dear reader, I am overjoyed to report it is sublime.
Following her abusive husband’s death, wealthy Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes) prepares to live life on her own terms. A passionate naturalist suppressed by her husband, Cora itches for a chance to dive up to her knees in the mud. Reports of a “serpent” spotted in Aldwinter, Essex County are all she needs. She packs up her London home to pursue the living myth. She brings her son Frankie and maid/confidant Martha (Hayley Squires). When Cora and company arrive in Essex they meet Vicar Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston) and his family. Will dismisses his parsonage’s furor over the serpent, but he and Cora nonetheless strike up a friendship. While London-bound surgeon Dr. Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane) lusts after her, Cora searches for answers in the muck, all while sparring about faith, science, and folklore with Will.
“True to the Spirit”
As long as there have been movies and television shows, there have been adaptations of beloved novels. The wonderful 2011 essay collection True to the Spirit: Film Adaptation and the Question of Fidelity takes the topic head on, with authors throughout considering how much wiggle room a project gets before it betrays the source. For my money, and for a number of the authors, it’s right there in the title; “true to the spirit.” If an adaptation preserves the thematic core of an original work, general narrative reworkings are of no consequence to me. Over six episodes, The Essex Serpent delivers a masterclass in that precise process. Perry’s novel relies heavily on extended inner monologues and a slew of letter correspondences. The show smartly opts to eschew any need for copious narration and therefore reconfigures for the new medium.
Much of this amounts to an apt slide in genre. Director Clio Barnard and the writers amplify the inherent horror elements, tapping into the longstanding British practice of folk horror. It’s hardly a stretch. The marshy Aldwinter oozes with mist and twisty estuaries, calling to mind The Hound of the Baskervilles as much as A Field in England. The very set-up mirrors long-standing genre tropes of urban vs. rural, and outsider vs. local. Barnard and team run with it, embracing the gloomy landscape and the townsfolk’s terror at what may lurk in the shadowy depths. One particular sequence later in the season, concerning a hypnosis attempt, is exquisite horror filmmaking. A symphony of unsettling editing, surreal framings, and gorgeous cinematography. Altogether an unexpected but welcome storytelling shift.
Cora & Will
It’s hard to imagine a better cast pair to anchor The Essex Serpent. Danes and Hiddleston both have experience with this sort of Victorian period piece, and neither are strangers to a touch of horror. However, what marks them as perfect for Cora and Will is their respective mastery of the micro-expression. The challenge of both characters is their layering of performative personalities and contained truths. Cora must wear the airs of a proper, wealthy, urbanite, but all she wants to do is read Darwin and muck about in search of fossils. Will may be Aldwinter’s spiritual center, but he is at constant odds with his community’s penchant for superstition. Each is a figure out of sorts with their circumstances, but battling to balance their souls. For Danes and Hiddleston, the flick of an eyebrow or quivered lip lands like a thunderclap. Whole worlds conveyed in a gesture.
Period pieces often have the demerit of too many people talking in rooms hurled at them, but with the electricity between Danes and Hiddleston, I drink in every conversation. Whether walking through the marsh, sitting in his study, or anywhere in between, their verbal sparring about faith, belief, and what may lurk in the Essex waters crackles with wit and subtext. It is this strength that allows Barnard’s directorial flourishes to sing. We are content to puzzle through Will and Cora’s debates and then be sucked into the chaos with them when a body washes up, or they find the remnants of an attempt at dark folk magic. Danes and Hiddleston and hardly the only thing to recommend The Essex Serpent, but they are a rapturous selling point. Furthermore, Hiddleston may just secure his place as the next iteration of the hallowed “Hot Priest.”
Design & Execution
Woven around Danes and Hiddleston, and contained within Barnard’s lush work is a masterclass in every category of televisual storytelling. Alice Normington’s production design and Jane Petrie’s costume work intensify the moodiness and veiled romance at the story’s heart. From their work, the duality of London and Aldwinter underscores the difference between metropolitan claustrophobia and rustic vastness. Whether in Cora’s choice of dress, the relative shading of interiors, or simply the silverware used at dinner, two distinct worlds emerge and remain in conversation. Neither is as simple as that initial dichotomy suggests. Both Normington and Petrie deliver a clinic on isolating details. A red dress amidst the mud and. Blue buttons on a beige tabletop. A bed frame achingly reminiscent of prison bars. On and on.
Layer on top of this a haunting score from Dustin O’Halloran and Herdís Stefánsdóttir, Lucia Zuccheti’s melodic editing, and a supporting cast without a wrong note within them, and The Essex Serpent emerges as a captivating mini-series on its own terms. Aware of all the literary references within Perry’s original work and the cinematic counterparts now available to them, the entire creative team pulls off a minor miracle in adapting a blisteringly cerebral novel to the screen.
The Essex Serpent premieres on Apple TV+ on Friday, May 13, 2022.
Devin McGrath-Conwell holds a B.A. in Film / English from Middlebury College and is currently pursuing an MFA in Screenwriting from Emerson College. His obsessions include all things horror, David Lynch, the darkest of satires, and Billy Joel. Devin’s writing has also appeared on Portland Film Review, CBS News, Horror Homeroom, and Cinema Scholars.