‘The Essex Serpent’ review: Gothic period drama that is revisionist in a different way

A still from ‘The Essex Serpent’

A still from ‘The Essex Serpent’

Gothic romances have been a guilty pleasure forever — having spent hours devouring tales of gentlewomen in difficult circumstances, brooding lords of the manor, a windswept moor and of course the mad woman in the attic with a fondness for pyrotechnics.

Apple TV’s enchanting, engrossing adaptation of Sarah Perry’s revisionist gothic romance, The Essex Serpent, is pitch-perfect. It is 1893, London and Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes) loses her husband, Michael to throat cancer. Michael refuses to let the brilliant and unconventional surgeon Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane) perform a life-saving surgery.

The Essex Serpent
Creator: Anna Symon
Run time: 47 to 50 minutes  
Episodes: 6
Cast: Claire Danes, Tom Hiddleston, Frank Dillane, Clémence Poésy, Hayley Squires, Jamael Westman
Storyline: A widow moves to Essex in search of a monster and finds forbidden love

Free of Michael, who was as abusive as he was rich and powerful, Cora pursues her interest in science. When she reads about a monster resurfacing 300 years after it terrorized the inhabitants of Aldwinter, she decides to investigate. A naturalist, she believes the so-called Essex serpent could be a previously undiscovered dinosaur.

She heads to Essex with her 11-year-old son, Frankie, (Casper Griffiths) and her friend and companion, Martha (Hayley Squires). In Aldwinter, a remote village by the sea, Cora meets the vicar, Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston) and his wife, Stella (Clémence Poésy) and their children, Jo (Dixie Egerickx) and John (Ryan Reffell).

Will, an intelligent and sensitive man, does not believe the serpent is responsible for the disappearances and misfortunes that have befallen Aldwinter. He feels it is the result of turning away from god. Sara and Will are drawn to each other despite, or perhaps because of, the clash of science and skepticism the two represent.

The Essex Serpent is revisionist in a different way from Bridgerton, despite the obligatory lacing-the-corset scene and the Indian presence. Both Martha and Luke ruefully recognize Sara’s affections lie elsewhere. There is also Luke’s friend and fellow surgeon, Spencer (Jamael Westman), who, while not as gifted as Luke, is obscenely rich. He might have feelings for Luke or Martha or both…

Luke performs a successful heart surgery on Nev (Yaamin Chowdhury) who with his sister, Sali, (Deepica Stephen) accompanied an English family from India. Nev and Sali were supposed to work with the family but on arrival in England were let go. Without work, the siblings live in terrible conditions.

Martha, who has the fire of revolution burning bright within her, is appalled by the living conditions of most Londoners. She tirelessly works towards alleviating the suffering of the poor and downtrodden. The heady days of discovery, medical innovation and industrialisation are beautifully captured in the show. Turn-of-the-century England is a time for science and superstition, faith and equations, whales and dinosaur bones to capture the imagination of anyone willing to look.

Danes is a commanding presence throughout the show. If there is a sense of miscasting, it is Hiddleston. He would have been better cast as Luke, the “imp with the disobedient mind”. As Will he does not have much to do, apart from look tortured while modelling some lovely winter wear.

A gripping show, at the end of six episodes, you come away with a feeling of time well spent.

The Essex Serpent is presently streaming on Apple TV+

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Printable version | Jun 14, 2022 5:58:44 pm |