Plot: Follows London widow Cora Seaborne who moves to Essex to investigate reports of a mythical serpent. She forms an unlikely bond with the village vicar, but when tragedy strikes, locals accuse her of attracting the creature.
Review: To be very honest with you, The Essex Serpent is not what you think it is. Chances are, based on the trailer or the title, you are expecting this limited series to be some sort of mystery, thriller, or possibly even a historical horror story. While it does have influences from those genres, this adaptation of Sarah Perry’s critically acclaimed novel is first and foremost a drama about friendship, love, and belief. At its core, The Essex Serpent does tackle the idea of a mythical beast blamed for deaths and disappearances in a small English town, but it is not used as a vehicle for gory sequences or jump scares. This series may be the least frightening tale of a sea monster ever filmed, but it is also a wonderfully acted drama with excellent performances from Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston.
Set in 1893, The Essex Serpent opens on Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes) as she deals with the impending death of her husband. It is immediately clear that their marriage is not a healthy one, resulting in Cora retreating into herself. When he passes, Cora becomes emboldened to explore her personal interests at the behest of her friend and servant Martha (Hayley Squires) and her husband’s doctor, Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane). Pursuing a newspaper article about the sightings of a mysterious creature in Essex known as the Blackwater Beast, Cora heads to the remote village to investigate. It is there that she finds a community completely afraid of the monster claiming their neighbors and family members. Everyone, that is, aside from the local Reverend, Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston).
Over the six-episode series, The Essex Serpent tackles the relationship between Cora and Will, which begins with a misunderstanding but slowly builds from begrudging to romantic. While Cora is still dealing with the trauma of her late husband’s abusive behavior, Will is happily married to Stella (Clemence Poesy) and has young children. Neither is prepared to deal with the emotions that they raise in one another and must deal with their burgeoning feelings all the while they disagree over what the titular monster may or may not be. This relationship is further complicated by the arrival of Dr. Garrett who is smitten with Cora and makes things even more complicated. Throw in additional subplots and character arcs that surround the two lead characters and you have all of the hallmarks of a classic gothic tale. The problem is that it doesn’t do much else from there.
Written by Anna Symon and directed by Clio Barnard, The Essex Serpent looks really good. Rather than the television-esque look commonly associated with BBC productions, the caliber of this production is evident on screen thanks to the financial support of Apple and the beautiful location shoots that make great use of the swampy and marshy eastern coast of England to create a realistic and haunting period piece. The costumes and sets look amazing as do the performances from the entire cast. Claire Danes is excellent as the headstrong Cora, a woman infatuated with solving the mystery of the killer creature she believes could be a dinosaur or similar animal. Tom Hiddleston is solid portraying a character that is eerily similar to virtually all of the roles he plays. Frank Dillane is also quite good as the slightly villainous Luke Garrett while Hayley Squires delivers a very underrated performance as Martha who may or may not be in love with Cora.
The unheralded MVP of this series is Clemence Poesy, best known for her roles in the Harry Potter franchise as well as Tenet, who anchors the emotional heft of this series as Tom’s forlorn wife, Stella. Ultimately, Poesy gives the most urgent performance in a story that lacks much to differentiate it from any other Victorian-era period piece. Yes, this series looks good, but the chemistry between Danes and Hiddleston, which is key to the series working, never elevates past a simmer. In the cold, dreary Essex countryside, this story needs something palpable to make you question whether there is something truly horrible lurking in the water or if there is something erotic about to explode between the two main characters. Instead, the series moves from episode to episode, developing the story in such a way that it becomes somewhat arduous to hang on for the next chapter of the story.
The Essex Serpent is a well-acted series that looks good and feels like it is building towards something that it never delivers on. By the end of the show, all of your questions about the Blackwater Beast will be answered, but whether you are happy with the results is another question. As good as Danes acts and as reliably as Hiddleston delivers, this series fails to do anything special to justify it over the myriad other series available to stream. It isn’t scary enough to be considered horror and it isn’t romantic enough to be romantic. If you are looking for Downton Abbey or Bridgerton, this isn’t it. If you are hoping for Crimson Peak or The Others, this isn’t it either. But, if you are a fan of Jane Eyre or deliberately paced 19th-century British dramas with solid performances, you may enjoy The Essex Serpent. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.
The Essex Serpent premieres on May 13th on AppleTV+.