★★★★ out of ★★★★★
Directed by Clio Barnard
The Essex Serpent is a cryptid tale that explores a time and place of great change both in society and in the lives of all the characters involved in the tale. It is a parable of faith, science, and the collision of the advances in society running headlong into long-held folkloric superstitions. Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston headline an impressive cast, in a period piece production that finds beauty in all the bleakness in Essex marshes.
It is the late 1890’s and the world is making startling jumps in technology and society. It is the steam era, fresh in the newness of electricity and germ theory, but not yet in the throws of the automobile. Society is changing, suffragettes are just around the corner, communism is breaking consciousness, paleontology has just become a thing, and England is at the peak of its power, and yet people still fear sea serpents.
The Exxex Serpent is a six-part series that is based upon a best-selling novel by Sarah Perry and is being shown on Apple+ starting on May 13 as a six-episode series of one-hour shows.
Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes) is a recent widow of an abusive aristocrat; a woman fascinated with the natural world, and upon hearing the reported appearance of a sea serpent on the Essex coast, is compelled to use her new freedom to investigate for herself. She is a learned woman of science but also is drawn to the fantastic.
Upon arriving in the marshlands of Essex where the creature had been sighted (and the audience MIGHT have spotted it in the introduction) she is confronted by a rural community where progress has passed by. Absent are the signs of enlightened education, as the residents of this area make a living mucking for eels in the reedy salt flats. Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston) is the local minister and in a not-so-subtle introduction to his character, Cora finds Will struggling to wrestle a sheep from his flock out of the muck of the marshes. He is a remarkably progressive thinker for a rural priest, and is quite bookish, particularly given his community.
Cora is bound and determined to find out if the serpent is real, and Will implores her that there is no such monster, but when a local missing girl finally is dragged out of the mud, the townsfolk are convinced that it is the serpent’s work. The priest and the dilettante find themselves as unlikely allies in trying to convince the community to stay calm and think rationally, but as things escalate the fears that the serpent is the devil come to punish the population spirals out of control.
There are a lot of wonderful things at play here. As a parable of the transition of a world in flux, it is a terrific analogy. This era has become a touchstone for storytellers who are looking to juxtapose this time of wonders and square them up against the fears of change. The production values here are through the roof. Apple+ clearly had a sizeable budget, and director/producer Clio Barnard and her team have unveiled a wondrous period piece drama with stunning sets, costumes, and locations.
The Essex Serpent carries a bit of Bronte with it too. Though these are not the wind-swept moors of Northern England, the foggy marshlands and muddy sea flats provide a melancholy backdrop for two elegant leads like Danes and Hiddleston to become romantic leads. It’s a bit of forbidden love, and though the first two shows don’t yet present the romance, you can see it approaching like a brass band marching down Broadway. This is a Gothic Romance, replete with high collared gowns and flowing locks. It pretty much shouts out paperback romance at times.
The story is also heavily developing some other interesting side plots. What is developing into a romantic competition with the brilliant (and arrogant) young surgeon, Dr. Garrett (Frank Dillane) looms. Cora’s maid-servant Naomi (Lily-Rose Aslandogdu) is a turn of the century wobbly, a free-thinking communist agitator looking for justice for London’s overworked labor force. The other Parrish priest, Matthew (Michael Jibson) is convinced that the sea serpent is bringing the devil’s work and is certainly going to be an antagonist of note. And, not to pass without notice is that Will is married to a perfectly pleasant wife, Stella (Clémence Poésy), and this will be awkward, at best.
All of these sub-plots suggest a long-running series is in the works, but it is only so far six episodes long. I am dubious if they will be able to adequately resolve all of these side plots in a way that makes sense or feels like they were necessary.
And more to the point, for horror fans, is this even a horror film? Is it scary? No. No, it’s not scary. There IS a monster, and we get suggestions for it in a couple of moments. There is gore, but it is blood from surgical procedures and not gory violence. So what should Scariest Things fans make of it? It is a very well-done drama. It has horror elements, and there is a bit of a “Burn the Witch!” vibe developing, and the old pitchforks and torches and peasant masses trope in play.
The monster is a big MacGuffin. It’s a monster tale, where the monster is of minor consequence. The serpent is a metaphor for the time when the Earth was flat: when sea monsters were drawn on naval maps and the modern world where fossils dug up from earthen banks tell a scientific story of how the world came to be.
When examining the bigger questions for this series, you might reasonably consider these plot points:
- Are Cora and Will going to fall in love? (probably)
- Is Doctor Garrett going to find out and try and jealously sabotage this love story? (probably)
- What about Stella? How will she handle this impending infidelity?
- Will the townsfolk try and string up Cora for heresy?
- Will Matthew try and overthrow Will for control of the church?
Is there really a sea serpent, and will we get to see it? (maybe?)
I will tell you this: It’s a really good series. It has great acting, great visuals, and a great story. You can draw some parallels to the changes in today’s society writ large. Any time conservative, traditional thought is pushed by progressive academic thinking, you get turbulence, and certainly, there is a fairly straight line connection to today’s culture where facts and truths are so… flexible.
Some technical notes: As a paleontology nerd, myself, I laud the way that evolution was discussed in this tale, as it fits the context of the times, and it also showcased a time in which dinosaurs and fossils were new and exciting. The idea of the living fossil was really well executed here.
Hats off to the locations team, as they were able to find areas in Essex that have retained their 19th Century character. The cottages and landscapes still remain somewhat untouched since that time. The brooding gloom through the fog, the reeds, and the mud were gorgeously shot by DP David Raedeker. And, as any great period piece requires, some stunning Edwardian costumes were designed by Jane Petrie, particularly for Cora’s multitude of high necked and puffy shouldered dresses. (She’s the designer for Downton Abbey… so she’s had some practice.)
If you are looking for something strictly horror, there are other shows that will be more to your liking. This is NOT a creature feature. (And honestly, it doesn’t feel like it would benefit if it really was creature centric). If you liked The Woman in Black, Crimson Peak, the HBO Max show The Nevers, Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, or the Steven Soderburg medical period drama The Knick… then you’d probably really like this. You’ll need to have an appreciation for British period dramas in order to get the most out of The Essex Serpent.
When is a monster movie not a monster movie? Well, this would be the answer to that. This is all about the drama. And that’s just fine. Great, even.
The Essex Serpent is Rated PG-14, for surgical blood and adult themes.