'The Essex Serpent' review: Tom Hiddleston's mediative period drama rewards patience

Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston) in The Essex Serpent. (Apple TV+)
Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston) in The Essex Serpent. (Apple TV+)

With The Essex Serpent, which arrives on AppleTV+ from 13 May, audiences must prepare themselves for the return of a long dormant dramatic genre.

One which features classically conflicted anti-heroes caged by conformity. Men of stature and presence who are buffeted by inclement weather, yet remain impervious to everything apart from a woman of wit and wisdom.

Adapted by Anna Symons from Sarah Perry’s novel, The Essex Serpent is a hot bed of nineteenth century heretical thinking, chocked full of astounding medical advances, ground breaking scientific discoveries and a fluctuating gender bias.

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Against this tumultuous backdrop audiences are swiftly introduced to Cora Seaborn (Clare Danes). A woman of means who married an older man now in poor health.

Cora Seaborn (Clare Danes) in The Essex Serpent. (Apple TV+)
Cora Seaborn (Clare Danes) in The Essex Serpent. (Apple TV+)

Kept for metaphorical decoration in a gilded cage of isolated opulence, this story is as much about her intellectual liberation as any type of mythical serpent. Those who oppose Cora following her fortuitous release from martial servitude, form a love triangle which spans the remainder of this limited series.

Doctor Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane) is a man of medical science, who has no interest in allowing Cora to indulge her passion for natural sciences. In a male dominated society where women were not allowed to actively pursue vocations, he signifies a diminishment in terms of opportunity. His desire for notoriety superseding any and all other matters.

As with all other period dramas, The Essex Serpent is more about what remains unspoken, rather than anything which is openly expressed. Courtships occur in glances, reputations are elevated or eviscerated in a moment, while differences in wealth and learning make class divisions more apparent.

However, when Cora enters the provincial backwaters of Aldwinter, on the hunt for the ancient serpent said to be terrorising locals, all those social constructs fall away. In this place free thinking is viewed with fear and ignorance, while religion replaces reason in the hearts of local people

Stella Ransome (Clémence Poésy) in The Essex Serpent. (Apple TV+)
Stella Ransome (Clémence Poésy) in The Essex Serpent. (Apple TV+)

It is here that she encounters Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston), hemmed in by his congregation of narrowminded parishioners. Torn between intellectual pursuits and a higher calling, this is where The Essex Serpent really blossoms into a gothic romance, as their two minds gradually come together.

With a windswept quagmire and wreaths of ground level fog perpetually in place, this god forsaken place possesses an isolating beauty, which colours every minute of the viewing experience. Combined with a haunting score from Dustin O’Halloran and Herdis Stefansdottirr, The Essex Serpent soon starts taking on a darker tone.

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Brooding visuals couple with simmering resentment from a devout collective, who view Cora Seaborn with increasing suspicion. Michael Jibson as curate Matthew Evansford, only fuels this fire further by rallying religious fervour, ensuring that issues of gender equality clash with backwater belief systems.

Dr Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane) in The Essex Serpent (Apple TV+)
Dr Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane) in The Essex Serpent (Apple TV+)

Paying homage to Robert Hardy horror classic The Wicker Man, this adaptation leans into atmospherics and weighted silences. Tom Hiddleston and Clare Danes are masterful in their exploitation of these menacing moments, while their supporting players fill out this unsettling ensemble.

Other obvious influences include The Crucible by Arthur Miller and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlett Letter, as each one examined the subjugation of women through supposed witchcraft. A theme which lingers beneath the surface as events head south and hysteria robs people of reason.

However, where The Essex Serpent flounders occasionally is in its pacing, which some might describe as meditative while others veer towards glacial. As good as Hiddleston and Danes might be, there are moments when tranquil beauty gives way to flashes of boredom. Endless dank vistas populated by sullen fishermen bemoaning their lot in life, with occasional ripples in the water are not made for maintaining momentum.

Cora Seaborn (Clare Danes) and Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston) in The Essex Serpent (Apple TV+)
Cora Seaborn (Clare Danes) and Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston) in The Essex Serpent (Apple TV+)

There is also the issue of Clémence Poésy, who plays Stella Ransome opposite a windswept and interesting anti-hero. For someone who is capable of much more, this actor is given short thrift in a show which leaves her simpering in the corner or tending house. As a seemingly lovelorn family life reveals itself to be something more serious, there is also very little sense of animosity.

Instead, resignation seems to be the only tangible emotion on display from Stella, while Cora and Tom look besotted yet conflicted, just as everything else kicks off around them.

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However, beyond those minor moans The Essex Serpent proves itself to be a tempestuous tale of heart over head, with generous lashings of irrationality over solid reason.

A series which not only succeeds in reminding people what Tom Hiddleston can do outside the MCU, but proves beyond doubt that period dramas are ripe for a resurgence.

The Essex Serpent premieres globally from 13 May on AppleTV+.

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