The Essex Serpent on Apple TV Plus is a mesmerizing, strange, and beautiful adaptation of Sarah Perry’s bestselling historical fiction novel. It’s a part gothic romance, part drama, and part mystery, but altogether a gorgeously shot, melancholy period piece full of Romanticism and strong performances.
The book adaptation stars Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston and takes place in the time period of the 1890s Victorian Era.
If you’ve yet to see the new six-episode series on Apple TV+, here is everything you need to know about it – including my review of The Essex Serpent.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
London widow Cora Seaborne moves to Essex to investigate reports of a mythical serpent. She forms a surprising bond of science and skepticism with the local vicar – but when tragedy strikes, locals accuse her of attracting the creature.
The haunting trailer gives a good idea of what the series is like – it’s true to the feel. If you enjoy gothic romances, Victorian period dramas, and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, you’ll probably enjoy The Essex Serpent.
In the leading role is Claire Danes as Cora Seaborne (a fitting last name), a wealthy widow still recovering from her abusive husband’s passing.
With her maidservant/nanny and autistic son, she sets out to the Essex coastal village of Aldwinter in search of a mythical sea serpent. She’s passionate about natural history and science and longs to make significant scientific discoveries.
However, her modern views and independent nature make her an easy target for a superstitious and prejudiced small town looking to blame someone for the recent drowning of a young girl.
In Essex, she meets the swoony and intellectual village vicar, Will Ransome, played by Tom Hiddleston, and his sweet wife, Stella, played by Clémence Poésy.
The three become fast friends despite the growing tensions in the town and superstitions about the beast, not to mention the differences between a man of faith and a woman of science.
Cora discovers Will is not as small-minded or uninteresting as she assumed he’d be. The two become intellectual equals and fall in love even though Cora loves Stella as a friend and Will is still deeply in love with his wife. They fight their feelings but are unsure how long they can resist them.
The rest of the main cast includes Hayley Squires as Martha, Cora’s friend, and servant, who happens to have unrequited feelings for Cora; Frank Dillane as Dr. Luke Garrett, a revolutionary young surgeon and best friend of Cora who wants to marry her; Jamael Westman as Dr. George Spencer, a friend, and associate of Luke’s who develops feelings for Martha.
Other cast members include Michael Jibson, Lily-Rose Aslandogdu, Gerard Kearns, Dixie Egerickx, Ryan Reffell, Caspar Griffiths, and more.
The new intriguing drama series is a fascinating slow-burn of forbidden romance and dangerous superstition amid a haunting gothic atmosphere in Victorian England.
Some might expect a touch of the supernatural in this series, but there is none. It is instead a character-driven drama with simple and complex themes such as love, friendship, superstition, reason, individual freedom, poverty, science vs. religion, female empowerment, temptation, the darkness that lurks below the surface, and more.
The Essex Serpent is a thinking period drama without much violence, cursing, or action. Each episode builds to the show’s climax and cannot be watched as a standalone. Nor does this limited series have a binge-able quality to it, either.
And yet, each episode is part of a greater whole and cannot be enjoyed without watching the show from start to finish.
At times, the pacing may feel too slow for some viewers. But it’s that slowness to the series that fascinated me. It made the emotions and building tensions all the more intense.
One of the core aspects of the series was the unique love triangle between Cora, Will, and Stella. Love affairs typically don’t appeal to me, but this is not your average love affair story.
If you go in expecting an epic romance between Cora and Will while the poor wife gets trampled on by them and becomes jealous – think again.
Anna Symon (the head writer) and director Clio Barnard (not to mention Perry’s novel) subvert the love affair trope into something more bizarre and palatable – mostly because of Stella’s beautiful strangeness.
While Cora and Will intrigue as intellectual characters we can relate to – Stella remains a captivating mystery – almost as ethereal as the mystical creature itself.
In the end, while I wouldn’t say you’re rooting for Will and Cora, you believe in their romance and emotions and want everything to turn out as it should.
Unrequited love also plays an essential part in the story. It seems everyone loves Cora and her fierce independence and passionate nature. From Martha to Luke and even to Will. Dr. Spencer also develops feelings for Martha – who’s more interested in Cora or helping the poor.
The production quality of the period drama is also first-rate. From the intended uses of color to the cinematography by David Raedeker, top-notch script, gothic visual atmosphere, excellent directing, and so much more.
I was incredibly impressed with the production design and the stunning costumes. Jane Petrie, the Emmy-winning costume designer from The Crown, succeeds yet again with this production – particularly with her costuming of Claire Danes as Cora Seaborne, each costume having a purpose.
Overall, if you enjoy British period dramas like Jane Eyre and other Victorian-era period pieces with a Romanticism influence and don’t mind a slower philosophical feel, The Essex Serpent might be for you.
It’s visually gorgeous, the romance mesmerizing with great chemistry between the main characters, and the story compelling.
All in all, The Essex Serpent is a visual feast told with fascinating characters I couldn’t help but adore.
Content Note: TV-14 for a couple of love scenes, some abuse, and intense scenes.
You can currently only watch The Essex Serpent on Apple TV+.
What did you think of The Essex Serpent? Do you agree with our review, or was it not your cup of tea? Let us know in the comments!
Featured image: Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston in The Essex Serpent. Credit: Apple TV+