Apple's gothic “The Essex Serpent” needs more bite, despite Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston

If you're expecting "The Thorn Birds" with a dinosaur, you'll be disappointed

By Alison Stine

Staff Writer

Published May 14, 2022 3:30PM (EDT)

Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston in “The Essex Serpent” (Apple TV+)
Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston in “The Essex Serpent” (Apple TV+)

It's been a bit of a gold rush for adaptations. As streaming services dominate programming, they need something to stream. A lot of somethings. Stories just don't seem to be written fast enough, and Netflix especially has been gobbling up the rights to published (and publishing) books. Other streaming services aren't far behind. "Station Eleven," "Shining Girls," "The Queen's Gambit" and "Anatomy of a Scandal" make up just a handful of recently adapted fare.

But not all fiction lends itself to the screen. Some novels just aren't successful as shows, not without serious reworking. Needs more snake is not a note I ever thought I'd be writing to myself, but that was before I'd seen "The Essex Serpent." Based on a 2016 novel by British author Sarah Perry, the Clio Barnard-directed series with Anna Symon as head writer is the latest in Apple TV+'s adaptations. It's unfortunately also one of the weakest. Meandering, ponderous and lacking tension, "The Essex Serpent" is in desperate need of more bite.

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"The Essex Serpent" stars Claire Danes as Cora Seaborne, a wealthy widow, mother and amateur naturalist in 19th century England who journeys to the small, damp county of Essex, following rumors of a serpent sighting. Cora brings along her young son (Caspar Griffiths) and her lady's companion, possibly more than a companion, Martha (Hayley Squires), leaving behind a young doctor, Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane), who's become smitten with her after her older husband's death. In the English countryside, she discovers a group of fearful, superstitious villagers, convinced a giant serpent – like Nessie but for the moors – has risen from the muddy waterways and has dragged off a young girl gone missing.

The girl seemingly called the serpent to her after a ritual at the beginning of "The Essex Serpent." It's a darkly mysterious start. Unfortunately, it doesn't set the tone for the rest of the show, whose conflict, like the mythical serpent, occasionally drifts near the surface, promising hints of substance that never fully materialize.

In Essex, Cora also discovers the local vicar, Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston), whose saintly wife Stella (Clémence Poésy in a gently powerful performance) is a near lookalike to Cora and whose daughter (Dixie Egerickx) is best friends with the sister (Lily-Rose Aslandogdu) of the missing girl. Will attempts to calm the villagers by insisting the serpent isn't real. He and Cora butt heads as, like Fox Mulder, she wants to believe. Her theory is that the serpent is a living fossil, a type of plesiosaur. She believes so strongly, she moves her small family to the coastal village of Aldwinter. She keeps running into Will, who is dashing in his long scarves and chunky knits and frustrated by Cora's headstrongness. They rescue a sheep stuck in the mud together and matters progress. Not far, though.

If you're expecting "The Thorn Birds" but with a dinosaur, you'll be disappointed. The plot twists and curves like the water, never really leading anywhere and just as murky and clotted with weeds. A criticism of the source material was that the novel contained a lot of ideas, something that echoes in the show as the meditations knock around but never come together. Martha is a Marxist, committed to social change. Luke has ambitious plans for radical surgery, and is always on the hunt for prospective patients. They're both in love with Cora – everyone's in love with Cora, for some reason — who has survived a terribly abusive marriage, seen only in brief, sadistic flashbacks. 

Danes and Hiddleston both appear drained, muted as the landscape, the chemistry between them less believable than the Loch Ness Monster. 

This is both a lot and oddly, not enough. The subplots are not given the time they need and all feel distinctly hollow, brittle as the china Cora smashes in a bizarre montage that splices scenes of her anger, Will's prayer, Luke being injured and the creature swirling around in the murk together, like the weirdest "Gray's Anatomy" episode ending ever (which "Scrubs" mocks perfectly). 

Part of the issue here is that most of the characters are not given enough backbone to feel real. Luke is rash and self-centered, his attention to Cora bordering on creepy, which makes the sardonic lines that Dillane delivers so well fall flat. Jamael Westman is a standout but his character Dr. George Spencer doesn't have much to do. Danes and Hiddleston both appear drained, muted as the landscape, the chemistry between them less believable than the Loch Ness Monster. 

The best elements of "The Essex Serpent" seem out of time. Squires sparks as the possibily bisexual Martha, who sleeps in the same bed as Cora and flatly declares she wants more from their relationship. Many reviews of the novel described Cora's son as being on the autism spectrum, a disability that would simply be "viewed in the nineteenth century [as] (a bit eccentric and not prone to affection)." Some of the strongest scenes of the show feature the talented Griffiths as a budding naturalist himself, interacting with the world with earnest curiosity. He befriends Stella, and there is an emotional scene of the two of them lining a wooden boat with blankets and trinkets like the send-off for The Lady of Shalott.   

Restrained as a corset, "The Essex Serpent" doesn't want us to excite ourselves.

Visually, "The Essex Serpent" looks gorgeous but subdued, as if filmed mostly on an overcast evening. It often seems to be twilight in Aldwinter. Stella wears almost entirely beautiful blue, a sharp contrast to the overwhelming grays of Cora. The muted scenery echoes the flat storyline. It just doesn't go far enough.

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It's strange to say a story with a mythical serpent, accusations of witchcraft and a sacrificed goat is too subtle, but "The Essex Serpent" is. Elements of the supernatural, the creepy and the just plain interesting are few and far between. The superstition of a seagull flying into the house, mass hallucinations possibly prompted by a panic attack are not returned to nor allowed the space for any tension to develop. 

The 19th century is a rich setting, especially when it comes to scientific discoveries (and thanks to Mary Shelley, the burgeoning genre of science fiction) but the show does not take advantage of that or give much animation to its aspiring female scientist. Restrained as a corset, it feels as if "The Essex Serpent" doesn't want us to excite ourselves or to get any ideas beyond the ones drolly lined out for us. And that's a shame.

The first two episodes of "The Essex Serpent" are now streaming on Apple TV+ with new episodes released on Fridays. Watch a trailer for it below, via YouTube.

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By Alison Stine

Alison Stine is a former staff writer at Salon. She is the author of the novels "Trashlands" and "Road Out of Winter," winner of the 2021 Philip K. Dick Award. A recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), she has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, and others.

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