The Essex Serpent review: “A moody, thoughtful and downright gorgeous period drama”

A sea creature that’s escaped evolution or faith-induced hysteria? That’s the question at the heart of Apple TV Plus’s adaptation of The Essex Serpent – a moody, thoughtful and downright gorgeous period drama based on Sarah Perry’s best-seller. Although, it could just as easily be framed as faith against science, new ideas against traditional values, or temptation against piety as our characters navigate their ideals at the turn of the 20th century.

But stuffy, proper period fodder this is not. Instead, we begin with horror. The show starts with the camera panning across the murky waters of Colchester, Essex before we dive into the River Blackwater. It’s not a stretch to believe something lurks beneath the surface of the meandering river as Dustin O’Halloran’s and Herdís Stefánsdóttir’s thundering score amps up. Two young girls wade into the marshes in the mist before something goes horribly wrong as an unseen object zooms towards one while the other runs away screaming. 

So what is lurking beneath, and what happened to that poor girl? That’s something newly widowed Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes) is desperate to discover. A natural history buff, we meet her as she’s freed from the shackles of an abusive marriage by her wealthy husband’s death, and given the freedom to travel to Essex to find out what is plaguing the town of Aldwinter. As you might imagine, she’s not met with open arms as she arrives in a village brimming with grief and terror – and a vicar in William Ransome (Tom Hiddleston) desperate to stop the tide of hysteria tipping over.

There’s great chemistry between the two leads, who play their roles with empathy and subtlety. This is established from the moment they (formally) meet at the dinner table at Will’s family home. He thinks the serpent is not real but rather a sign of the fears that come with changing times while Cora wonders if something more interesting is going on. “So you’re afraid of progress,” wonders Cora as her and Will clash. “I’d rather believe in a creature people have actually seen, than an invisible god, is that blasphemy?”

Across the first two episodes, the characters find their reliance on faith and sciences pushed and prodded as Cora wonders if the serpent could really exist, while Will’s fear of temptation rears its head. However, perhaps this is most poignantly observed in the grief of the locals who turn to building fences, taking shifts on watching the beaches, and even – in a moment that could be lifted right from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible – becoming possessed by the devil.

Running alongside this quest for the mysterious creature is a subplot of doctor Luke Garrett attempting to perform the first open heart surgery. In a similar vein to Cora, he battles against the establishment as he tries to break new scientific ground. It’s a gory and fascinating diversion, but not quite as compelling as the main story thus far. Although Frank Dillane’s easy charm in the role and his character’s infatuation with Cora is enough to keep it ticking along.

Tom Hiddleston in The Essex Serpent

(Image credit: Apple TV Plus)

There is no doubt the slow and atmospheric pace of the show will be too creeping for some. This is an adaptation that takes its time, allowing for scenes focused on a lost chicken, research into the science of the Fata Morgana, and strolls across the marshes. That’s all well and good, but it means the promise of the heightened horror that the show begins with – and builds up to at the end of each episode – isn’t maintained.

But, visually, the series is hard to fault. The money that Apple puts behind its programmes allows this show to be elevated from a run-of-the-mill book adaptation. This can be seen through Jane Petrie’s beautiful costume design, which makes fantastic use of knitwear. It’s slightly anachronistic from what we’re used to seeing in period pieces but it helps establish the tone – and the chill – of the programme.

The Essex Serpent certainly has a lot to live up to. Not only does the series star two of TV’s most in demand stars in Hiddleston and Danes, but the best-selling book it was based on swept a slew of awards when it was published in 2017. Thankfully, director Clio Barnard and screenwriter Anna Symon seem to have got the memo and made this a drama worth your time. The first two episodes show great promise, and will have you coming back for the weekly release to find out just what – or who – the real terror in Aldwinter is.

The Essex Serpent is airing weekly on Apple TV Plus. Looking for your next binge? Check out our list of the best TV shows of all time.

The Verdict


4 out of 5

The Essex Serpent review: “A moody, thoughtful and downright gorgeous period drama”

A moody, atmospheric, and visually stunning adaptation of Sarah Perry’s novel, which is anchored by the chemistry between Danes and Hiddleston in the lead roles.

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