Some works of fiction just feel as if they were created in a lab for one’s own pleasure, complete with all of the genre trappings required to ensure that the brain’s pleasure centre is firing at maximum capacity. My instincts were that the premise of Apple TV+’s new series The Essex Serpent was ideally matched to my personal interests before I even started watching it. Not only am I a sucker for period dramas in general, but the names associated to this one piqued my interest.
Given that I haven’t read the Sarah Perry novel on which the series is based, I can only judge the final small-screen product, written by Anna Symon and directed by Clio Barnard, on its own merits — and thankfully, The Essex Serpent succeeds in almost every way.
The resulting product is an atmospheric, Gothic romance that doesn’t shy away from indulging in its overall foreboding while looking toward the possibility of an optimistic ending, thanks to performances by Tom Hiddleston and Claire Danes that are infused with a delicious note of inward yearning that slowly manifests itself on the outside to the fog-blanketed marshes of the Essex village in which the bulk of the story is set.
We’re first introduced to the plot through Danes’ character, Cora Seaborne; the newly-widowed woman appears to be mourning her late husband on the surface, until we learn that his death was the more essential catalyst in her breaking free from a horribly abusive marriage. Cora has been the wife imprisoned in the gilded cage of their London townhome for so long that she is eager to grab the first real chance of escape that comes her way.
With her own personal fascination with fossils and palaeontology, Cora seizes the opportunity to pack up herself, her young son Frankie (Caspar Griffiths), and her housekeeper Martha (Hayley Squires) and travel to Aldwinter in order to verify any proof that this monster of legend — one that has the locals utterly terrified — exists.
It’s there that her path intersects with that of Aldwinter’s vicar, Will Ransome (Hiddleston in plenty of fine knitwear), and it’s clear from the start that they have an unforeseen connection, despite the fact that none of them is prepared for it or understands what it means.