Apple TV Plus is having a stellar year. In an ever more crowded streaming market, the service is far more selective than its rivals in where it puts its time and resources, but it’s clearly going for quality over quantity.
This week’s release continues the fine tradition Apple TV has already laid down with the excellent spy drama Slow Horses and genre-bending thriller Shining Girls as with another prestige drama, The Essex Serpent.
Adapted from Sarah Perry’s 2016 novel, the drama is headlined by Loki star Tom Hiddleston and Claire Danes, the actress’ first major role since her long-running turn in explosive drama Homeland. Supporting them are Sense8 and Fear The Walking Dead star Frank Dillane, I, Daniel Blake breakout star Hayley Squires and The Tunnel’s Clémence Poésy.
Clio Barnard, director of acclaimed indie dramas The Selfish Giant and Dark River, has taken charge of all six of the adaptation’s episodes, while Anna Symon, whose credits include Mrs Wilson and Deep Water, has provided the scripts.
The show’s first two episodes hit Apple TV Plus today (May 13) with the remaining four episodes dropping weekly after that.
Moving through the mire…
Perry’s novel, which is set in the early 1890s, largely revolves around Cora Seaborne, the role Danes has taken after the show’s first casting, Keira Knightley, exited during the pandemic.
When we meet Cora, she has just been widowed and is about to bury her husband, who it is quickly revealed was a terrible bully who put her through awful and systematic physical and emotional abuse. Now freed from her husband’s tyranny, Cora, a woman with a burning interest in the natural sciences, reads about sightings of a mysterious serpent in Aldwinter, a fictional village in rural Essex, and decides to follow her passion and head there, accompanied by her young son and Hayley Squires’ Martha, her longtime servant, who has become more like a live-in companion in her years of employment.
Sad to see her depart for the Essex coastline is Frank Dillane’s Dr Luke Garrett, a cocky young doctor who cared for Cora’s late husband and has fallen in love with her in the process.
In Aldwinter, Cora is introduced to Hiddleston’s Will Ransome, the village’s vicar. A thoughtful man, a world away from the fire and brimstone nature of many of his colleagues in the clergy, Ransom has been struggling to convince his congregation that the Serpent is a myth and to stop hysteria from breaking out among them.
Initially, Ransome is suspicious of Cora, suspecting she will rile up an already agitated village as she searches for the truth about the serpent and its link to the disappearance of a local girl. He is also concerned for the welfare of his wife, Clémence Poésy’s Stella, who is clearly very ill.
As the narrative progresses, the characters’ lives, motives, wants, desires, and fears all become intertwined and a series of complex love stories, both romantic and otherwise, begin to play out.
Don’t come looking for Gods and Monsters
Anyone drawn in by the fantastical and monstrous title will quickly be disappointed by The Essex Serpent. Despite the mythical beast acting as a catalyst for so much of what plays out in the narrative, this is very a human drama.
Hiddleston has seen so much of his career taken up by his commitments to the Marvel Cinematic Universe that it has been rare to see him out of Loki costume in recent years, but he’s on great form here as the deeply-conflicted Ransome.
Danes’ accent is a little up and down at times, but she delivers a sterling turn in a role that so much of the story goes through. Likewise, Squires’ passionate, fiery Martha and Dillane’s slithery (no pun intended) Garrett are superb supporting pillars.
None more dark
Clio Barnard’s filmmaking history is one of unrelenting bleakness. She first came to prominence with The Arbor, an experimental offering that was part documentary, part feature film, but explored the tragic life of doomed playwright Andrea Dunbar in a profound and heartbreaking manner. She has followed that with The Selfish Giant, another unrelenting slice of misery about two 13-year old boys who find themselves exploited by a local criminal, and Dark River, where she asked Ruth Wilson to go and spend three weeks learning to tend to sheep as part of her preparation for the role about two warring siblings forced back to their family farm. The novel it’s based on is set in the South of France, but Barnard transplanted the action to the dark moors of Northern England, and the cinematography and landscapes, all in her grey, washed-out stylings, are on show here.
Perry’s novel makes much of the wildness of the turn of the 20th century Essex, a land where everything is caked in a layer of mud and sodden with rain, and Barnard and her team bring that life here superbly. It does, however, make for a very dour visual spectacle. It’s lucky then that the performances more than make up for it.
The Essex Serpent is a grown-up drama in every sense of the word. Nothing is spoon-fed to viewers, and, while Symon’s script is carefully crafted and paced, this is a drama that is as much about what isn’t said as what is.
That does not make it any less compelling though and you’ll find yourself drawn in as the narrative winds on. The novel’s grand themes, science versus faith, love in all its forms, all set in a time of tremendous change in the United Kingdom as it prepares for the 20th century, are largely skilfully handed, but it occasionally feel like there’s too much going on. Perry’s book is a large, meandering thing, which uses its supernatural starting point to take a look at society’s many social and personal inequalities, and in an effort to try and get that across, the drama does sometimes feel like its focus is less than laserlike.
The drama where Hiddleston, Danes, Dillane and Poesy is where it really sings and it becomes a complex, compelling and heartwrenching love story completely devoid of schmaltz or cynicism. It’s another win for Apple.
The first two episodes of The Essex Serpent will air on Apple TV Plus today (May 13) with the remaining four episodes dropping weekly.