There have been many stories over the years surrounding women's autonomy. Be it within society, with their bodies and in the world of work. It's something that is constantly changing but always challenged. Look to the current controversy in America about abortion rights for proof of that.
The Essex Serpent is set in 1893 and combines those challenges with a forbidden romance, a gothic creature mystery, religious overtones and social issues such as the unbalance between those with wealth and those in poverty. Adapted from the 2016 best-selling novel by Sarah Perry, it's an ambitious take that, for the most part, succeeds, especially if you go in with certain expectations.
The first of these regards the titular serpent. In the opening scene, Gracie Banks, watched by her sister Naomi (a breakout performance from Lily-Rose Aslandogdu), stands in the middle of a river asking for forgiveness for sinning whilst clutching a cross. "It was the serpent what tempted me," she says, looking back at Naomi. Moments later, after a large swell of water approaches her, she is gone. Based on that opening, it would seem we have a gothic monster mystery on our hands. However, like the waves from under the water in the opening scene, the serpent's influence flows beneath the main plot, driving some of the characters' emotions and creating this ongoing foreboding, but not remaining the focus. That focus remains on the characters and their relationships. It's where it excels, too, buoyed by some powerful performances.
The main thread of the show follows Cora (Claire Danes) as she deals with the loss of her abusive husband in London. Having always shown an interest in archaeology and the sciences, she befriends her husband's doctor, Luke (Frank Dillane), who is determined to perform the first successful heart surgery. After Cora reads about the tales of a serpent, she is compelled to travel to Aldwinter in Essex to investigate, taking her son Francis and friend/nanny Martha (Hayley Squires) with her. There she meets and befriends the Ransome family, headed by Will (Tom Hiddleston) and Stella (Clémence Poésy). Will, a priest, is currently trying to calm the local community, who believe the serpent comes from biblical origins and frequently that it's a response to the sins of women.
That's where the show finds its strong through-line; drawing a sometimes bluntly direct line between the serpent of our story and the serpent "what tempted woman" from the bible. It smartly examines the way society tries to restrict women's role, often by blaming them for any potential 'sins' and being the root of problems that men create. Cora's guilt and trauma for the abusive marriage she was in is a particularly timeless theme. The fact that Essex was the site of the 16th-century witch trials is also not lost here, with Cora frequently called out as one.
Cora being 'of a certain age', widowed and with a child but still wanting to follow her dream of archaeology, is frequently looked upon questionably - and angrily - by the locals and even by her friend and potential lover, Luke. What she wants to do is sometimes described as 'radical', while Cora herself questions why she needs to wait for a man's permission for this and other decisions. There is, of course, the word 'hysterical' thrown around about women too. These comments are pretty on the nose but still very resonant today.
The other central theme of the series is the various love triangles and breathless looks across the room. Core amongst this is Cora and Will, who, while butting heads over science vs religion, form a strong friendship that quickly leads to an intense romance. Hiddlestone, giving Fleabag's Andrew Scott a run for his money as the definitive 'Hot Priest', strides through this show with a commanding presence, but it's Cora who we follow through this story. Martha also seems to carry a flame for her employer while she is pursued by Luke's friend Spencer and Luke himself fancies his chances with Cora. And that's to start with. It gets more convoluted as the series progresses. It's a credit to the writing that it doesn't get bloated and hard to track as we go through the series. There are even some scenes early on that could have been trimmed for efficiency. Adapting from the book, the writers, led by showrunner Anna Symon (Mrs Wilson), have expanded some areas. Chief amongst them is the role of Martha, played with wit by Hayley Squires (gripping in the film 'I, Daniel Blake'). Given more autonomy with her 'socialist' views, she provides a nice counterbalance to the rest of the story.
Shot almost entirely on location; it's worth addressing the show's stunning visuals. From the misty marshland to the compact cottage rooms with intricate, tiny props, everything is beautifully staged by director Clio Barnard and cinematographer David Raedeker. While performances are all great, some characters, unfortunately, feel a little under-developed. Oddly, Tom Hiddlestone's Will is one of them. While his character works well in the grand scheme of Cora's storyline, there always seems to be this mystery around him which is never truly explored. It's even asked but not answered directly by Cora when she questions why such a well-read man was in such a remote location. I would have liked to have seen more of Luke's friend Spencer too. He's so likeable in an innocent puppy kind of way, but that's about it. It would have been good to see some elements of shade to him, especially since Luke gets to display so many different characteristics, frequently switching from arrogant arsehole to charming suitor to ambitious champion of Cora and everything in-between. Frank Dillane is very watchable in the role, never letting you settle on one exact feeling for the character.
Speaking of actors, lead Claire Danes is compelling, with a performance that gives her a good clean break from her most known role in Homeland. Sporting an impeccable English accent, she proves that she's more than just the CIA agent with issues and turns in a passionate, conflicted, and frequently warm performance.
The Essex Serpent is, at times, a very ambitious show that juggles several different stories, rich characters and many themes. Though it trips up a couple of times, it's mostly successful, with some well-balanced writing and strong performances topped off with some beautiful, gothic location shooting. Like a good novel, it's an engrossing world to immerse yourself in for its sprightly 6 episode run.
'The Essex Serpent' premieres on Apple TV+ on Friday May 13th with the first two episodes.
Jonathan, ScreenTimes’ Contributing Editor has been lucky enough to work on Apple products his whole life, ever since his Dad brought home a Mac Performa aged 11 (him, not his Dad). Apple is just engrained in his life, especially nowadays, as a graphic designer. His nerdy enthusiasm for Apple is only matched by his love of TV and film. Whether a buzz-worthy new show or blockbuster, a small cult show or an indie film, he’ll watch it. So Apple TV meets right in the middle of that Venn diagram! He also writes on his personal site, smallbites.me. He lives in London and is writing his own bio in the third person.