Sunday, July 3, 2022

The Essex Serpent review: a slow, tense drama with lots of great sweaters

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How much do you enjoy? The Essex Serpent, an Apple TV Plus adaptation of Sarah Perry’s 2016 novel, may depend on how much you enjoy watching Tom Hiddleston brood in a foggy field while wearing warm wool sweaters. For many people, that will probably be enough to be a hook. (It was for me.) But thankfully, the six-episode series offers much more than great hair blowing in the wind — it’s a tense and heartfelt exploration of grief and faith and how much those two things can mess with you. The awesome jerseys are just a bonus.

The show mainly follows two characters. One is Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes), a recent widow and aspiring natural history scholar who is quite fixated on sea snakes. She spends her free time researching them through old books, maps, and newspaper clippings. When rumors circulate that a snake is terrorizing a small fishing village in Essex, she – along with her young son (Caspar Griffiths) and friend/housekeeper (Hayley Squires) – board a train from London to investigate.

What she finds when she arrives isn’t a snake – at least not initially, no spoilers there – but rather a city steadily going mad with fear. A missing child has everyone on edge and blames the mythical creature, who, according to many, attacks the most sinful of the bunch. Since bad things continue to happen to virtually everyone, the tragedies are inevitably attributed to the beast. One of the first people Cora meets in town is Will Ransome (Hiddleston), a local clergyman and one of the few people who not think the serpent is a bad omen from God.

initial, The Essex Serpent relies pretty heavily on some worn-out tropes. When Cora and Will first meet, they have no idea who each other is, and even though she helps him save a goat from some mischief, he’s still a big jerk. Later, when they’re properly introduced so he can help with her investigation, it’s the classic rom-com moment where she gets the startling realization, “Oh, that’s the person who was so rude to me before.” It’s not the most original way to meet two characters, but at least the show goes by quickly. It helps that Danes and Hiddleston have an antagonistic chemistry that is a lot of fun to watch, even with the familiar lineup.

The other, much more interesting topic that the show leans on is the belief versus science debate. Cora’s desire to find a logical explanation for the snake – she spends a lot of time donning fancy outfits to go dig up fossils – comes into direct conflict with most people in town, who become increasingly convinced that it it is the work of a vengeful deity. What makes the dynamics particularly interesting in The Essex Serpent is Will, who is stuck in the middle. He is a man of faith who also cannot accept the supernatural explanations for everything concerning the city, leaving him with quite a few doubts about his beliefs and how much he can help the community he serves.

To add even more drama to the proceedings, the show ends up being much more about interpersonal relationships than existential relationships (though the slang and religion still remain the main elements). The Essex Serpent put a lot of really beautiful people in a very grim location and then make them try really hard not to be openly horny for each other. Cora finally experiences something close to freedom now that her abusive marriage is over, and she finds herself trapped between Will (who is not only a pastor but also married with two children) and Luke (Frank Dillane), a charming young doctor who also happens to be a pioneering force behind the then-nascent field of open-heart surgery.

Claire Danes inside The Essex Serpent
Image: Apple

Much of the show revolves around watching the three of them navigate this awkward dynamic while being too British and polite to just come out and say how they feel. This balances out all of the aforementioned struggles, such as finding a mythical sea serpent or perfecting some radical type of operation. It’s a slow burn of a show, revealing its true intentions only after a few episodes. But once he gets a foothold, The Essex Serpent becomes a drama that treats its subjects with a refreshing honesty that makes them all the more interesting. Falling in and out of love is always messy, but especially when the world around you is also a complete mess. The Essex Serpent captures that perfectly. And at six episodes long, it does so without exceeding its welcome.

Really, it’s a show about the beautiful chaos that comes from conflict, whether that’s between science and faith, love and hate, or the placing of a bunch of beautiful people in a grim and depressing town. In this way, the cozy sweater is a metaphor for The Essex Serpent as a whole: its dull and worn exterior hides something far more intriguing underneath.

The Essex Serpent begins streaming on Apple TV Plus on May 13.

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