Apple TV+ has earned rave reviews for a number of projects, from Pachinko and Slow Horses to Severance and Ted Lasso. The latest original series to launch on the platform is the Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston led The Essex Serpent. The series is based on Sarah Perry's 2016 Novel which was a word-of-mouth sensation and earned stellar reviews.
In a Gothic tale set in 1893 around the Essex marshes, the local community wonder if the mythical serpent of folklore tales has come to haunt people for their sins. Danes plays Cora Seaborne, a widow from London interested in the natural sciences and the serpent's true nature. Outside of Danes and Hiddleston, there is a wealth of talent involved in the project not least in the shape of acclaimed British director Clio Barnard, fresh off the success of festival darling Ali & Ava. The series transposes much of what made Perry's novel a sensation and brings it to life in a slow-burning, profoundly moving and visually stunning marvel for the small screen.
The gloomy undercurrent and lurking threat of the serpent make the series a gripping watch, while the unease of the local community is captured magnificently with their trust in God and Vicar Will Ransom (Hiddleston), eroding more and more with each passing episode. Focus is very much set on the human condition and our trust in faith and in each other, making this an entirely believable account of a rural community in late Victorian England.
Cora is seen as something of an outsider from the outset, and with each passing incident that might be a result of the serpent, the unease of the community grows until it reaches a fever pitch. Ensemble performances make the series compelling to view and help negate any sense of fatigue that might creep in from the series' admittedly leisurely pacing. Danes is a constantly captivating presence on screen as the conflicted Cora, who is steadfast in her determination to investigate the occurrences no matter where it leaves her in the eyes of the local community. She has spellbinding chemistry with Tom Hiddleston, here a far cry from the God of Mischief Loki he has become so associated with for over a decade. Here, he is far more reserved and insular, a man grappling with his conviction and his faith.
Will Ransom doesn't want to believe in the serpent and struggles to maintain the devotion of his community while trying to keep a hold of his marriage to Stella (Clemence Posey) and budding feelings for Cora. The pair's complex, layered relationship grounds much of the show and the pair act out the initial distrust and growing sense of longing between them to perfection. The central leads aren't the only performances of note, with Cora's socialist Nanny Martha (Hayley Squires) and genius heart surgeon Luke (Frank Dilane) who may also harbour feelings for Cora, rounding out the central cast and adding depth and social commentary.
The Essex Serpent is a visual delight capturing the gloom and murkiness of both the rugged Essex and its marshland, but also the squalor and grandeur of late Victorian London, making it an uninviting and inhospitable place. It is not uncommon for the term ‘cinematic' to describe a TV series, but this truly does feel like a work of art from a Cinematography and Production Design perspective. Evoking the sense of terror in the community while also the scale and beauty of the landscape, David Raedeker must be commended for his work, which took influence from the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, particularly through the use of mirroring. Dustin O'Halloran & Herdís Stefánsdóttir's score is sumptuous and perfectly fitting of the Gothic overtones of the series both soothing and unsettling.
The Essex Serpent continues Apple TV+'s strong run and is anchored by stellar lead performances. The production design, writing and direction each excel themselves, as one would expect of the talent involved. While there are changes from the original novel, they had the approval of Sarah Perry herself, with fans of the original novel (and of Gothic films) will find something to savour in the Essex marshes.