The Essex Serpent Review: Tom Hiddleston's show is an enticing gothic drama impaired by its slow pace
Tom Hiddleston and Claire Danes star in a gothic drama that asks existential questions. Read Pinkvilla's review of the show below.
The Essex Serpent
The Essex Serpent Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Claire Danes
The Essex Serpent Creator: Anna Symon
Streaming Platform: AppleTV+
The Essex Serpent Stars:3/5
The Essex Serpent captures beautifully a tussle between the ideas of faith, superstition and science with a sophisticated cognitive approach. The six-part show will leave you with some valid questions as you process these ideas through characters who convincingly make their arguments. There's also a great mixture of the Victorian horror element that plays out well, making it a worthwhile attempt at adapting Sarah Perry’s celebrated 2016 novel. In terms of its genre even as it may be distinctly different from the likes of AppleTV+'s Severance, it's a great example of the platform's eye to produce content that may enjoy a niche audience but with mind-blowing stories to tell.
In Anna Symon’s adaptation of The Essex Serpent, there seems to be a conscious decision that seems to bind the series' late-nineteenth-century problems with a perspective of the current times. The contrasting nature of the show's two leads, vicar Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston) and Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes) makes for an interesting approach as we see their characters intellectually battle phenomenons while physical attractions add to the tension. Ultimately, it all comes down to beliefs and judgements in this folk horror tale that tries to keep the mystery alive for six episodes.
It all starts with Cora Seaborne's (Danes) decision to leave London, following the death of her abusive husband. Her scientific curiosities strangely lead her to a fishing town in Essex after she comes across an article about a mysterious town that is being haunted by a serpent. Accompanied by her son (Caspar Griffiths)and also her live-in maid Martha (Hayley Squires), Cora sets off for the village with little idea of the adventure that falls for her ahead. The budding natural history scholar's fascination for sea serpents finds her dealing with village folk who believe that the serpent is a punisher sent by god. While the town finds itself looming under great fear of the serpent, it is vicar Will (Hiddleston) who tries hard to soothe the fisherfolk amid chaos, all the while an unlikely bond continues to form between Cora and Will.
The thing about The Essex Serpent is that it is a tense drama which builds with every episode and the moves are as slow as a slithering serpent who doesn't plan any hasty moves but rather attacks when you least expect it. The show takes a while to grow on you but I assure you that once you are past the first two episodes, you're in for the long haul. Whether there is an actual serpent or is it merely superstition may be the story's core mystery but what's truly attractive about the show is the chaos that builds around it. With characters such as the surgeon, Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane) and village curate Matthew Evansford (Michael Jibson), the show gets meatier.
Much of the series' allure can also be credited to its excellent cinematography. Both, cinematographer David Raedeker and director Clio Barnard capture the eerie vibe of the village that not only blends perfectly with the time period but also the existential nature of the show while also swiftly changing gears when needed as the focus also shifts to the brewing bond between the vicar and Cora. There is also an additional brownie point for the show for the costume department as we instantly get transported to the victorian age.
In terms of performances, while Keira Knightly was initially chosen to play Cora, there's no denying that Claire Danes who eventually got cast makes the most of this opportunity and seems like the perfect fit for a character with a sharp mind. Her inquisitive streak and London mannerisms leave the villagers in awe and the same happens to us as she aces the English accent through and through. To her company is the charismatic Tom Hiddleston who brings a layered performance as the vicar. There is a sense of earnestness that the actor brings to this role. His calm demeanour and scholarly instincts gel well with Cora's dynamic beliefs. The final two episodes particularly focus on Hiddleston and Danes after building up tension in the beginning. Other impressive performances in the series also include that of Caspar Griffiths.
The Essex Serpent is a show that doesn't have everything going for it though as there are some loose ends from the first few episodes that don't get satisfactorily tied in the end. The simmering pace of the show could also be turned out to be a downside for it as one does require patience to keep at it with a slow beginning. While the show's approach to mixing science and religion in a clever manner stands out for it, the forbidden love angle is a disappointing addition to it. Yet, for those who enjoy slow-paced dramas, The Essex Serpent can be an engaging watch as an indulgence.