This spoiler-free review of The Essex Serpent is based on screeners of the entire series.
In a world of multiverses and magic and true crime drama, sometimes a gothic period piece might fall to the wayside. The concept behind The Essex Serpent is a rather simple one. A woman, her son, and her friend leave London to go to Essex to investigate the word of a mythical serpent. The woman is Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes), a naturalist who is probably easiest described as something of an amateur archaeologist. While the locals believe the serpent to be of fantastical origins, she believes it might be something more scientific. In Essex, she meets the local vicar, Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston), who, despite clashing with idealistically, is someone that she connects with.
Based on the novel of the same name by author Sarah Perry, The Essex Serpent‘s concept might seem like something pulled straight out of a harlequin romance. After all, hot priests are all the rage. But, the series, penned by Anna Symon (Mrs. Wilson) and directed by Clio Barnard (The Arbor), is actually surprisingly more Brontë than it is Harlequin. The setting is bleak – the townspeople are suspicious and insular folks. Plagued by a rash of deaths and odd behavior, the small town is more inclined to believe in superstition than in science.
Will, for his part, is a practical man. Although he is a man of faith, he doesn’t let his parish drag him into flights of fancy or superstition. His friendship with Cora evolves quickly, the chemistry between the two immediately palpable. But both characters have things holding them back, despite a growing attraction. Will is happily married to a woman named Stella (Clémence Poésy), who also befriends Cora and her son. Cora, a newly made widow, is struggling after surviving an abusive relationship with her late husband. Cora also has a suitor in the form of a young surgeon named Luke (Frank Dillane).
The flaw of The Essex Serpent is that it does often get lost in its own characters. Obviously, Cora and Will are at the heart of the story, but as it develops threads for the supporting characters, few are nearly as satisfactory as the main one. But the series makes up for it in a stunning atmosphere. The foggy marshes of Essex instantly set the mood and for half of the series it feels more like Cora is in a ghost story rather than a romance.
Tom Hiddleston and Claire Danes both embody their roles with nuance and expertise. Coming from the bombastic MCU trickster Loki, Hiddleston proves in this series that his strength is still in drama. While Loki might be fun, Will Ransome is a complex and compelling man. It’s not difficult to see why Cora is attracted to him. Danes is unafraid to explore the different aspects of Cora’s personality. With her struggles as a mother, her difficulty in navigating society, and her flaws, Danes understands how to approach it without being hyperbolic.
Although the series is based on a book, there are some pleasant and surprising changes that give this adaptation its own legs to stand on. It would be disappointing if this was a scene-for-scene adaptation. With a muted but indulgent visual palette, The Essex Serpent not only looks amazing but its leads propel it beyond the standard period piece affair into the stratosphere.