Where academic fascination meets superstitious fear the clash can be volatile. The Essex Serpent explores how the unexplained galvanises in different ways in this gothic period drama that slithers underfoot, ready to trip you up.
Based on the novel of the same name by Sarah Perry, The Essex Serpent stars Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston (Loki) as heightened tensions cause danger and attraction in equal measure.
What Is The Essex Serpent About?
London resident Cora (Danes), recently widowed from a wealthy but abusive husband, reads about sightings of a mysterious serpent in Essex.
Keen to exert her new freedom for some academic research, she and maid Martha (Hayley Squires) with emotionless son Frankie, hire a cottage in the area so she can explore further.
But whilst Cora swishes over to the rural marshland in a flit of intellectual intrigue, life is different for the residents.
Paranoia about the serpent is rife, with religious dogma tossed around as a local girl goes missing.
Married Vicar Will (Hiddleston) struggles to comfort his flock and deal with his emotions as Cora’s presence disrupts the local equilibrium in more ways than one.
The Essex Serpent Official Trailer
Is The Essex Serpent Worth Watching?
In such a show where the perceived danger bubbles under unseen, and sparked feelings of attraction are suppressed or swept away, the strength of a narrative will rest with the actors and characters.
Danes’ performance is one that injects an effervescence into proceedings. Whilst her past traumas inform her present exuberance they don’t control her, and Danes fills the screen with life at each turn.
However, the storylines she blunders through can test our patience. Her lack of self awareness certainly exacerbates tensions in the Essex residency where she sets up shop.
Hiddleston brings his usual brooding and pained presence, especially so as Cora’s bulldozer approach shakes him out of his daily reverie.
Hot on Cora’s heels is also arrogant up and coming London surgeon Luke (Frank Dillane); Cora can’t move for people enamoured with her, it seems.
The central mystery moves at a languid pace. Cora’s belief that a serpent does exist in the form of a living fossil, versus Will’s denial of its existence to quell religious mob mentality causes character clashes. As an audience we have little to go on either way for large stretches of the show.
Despite dramatic skyline shots and wide angles of the marshy sticks in which academia butts against tradition, the real beating heart of The Essex Serpent is the so-so romances that threaten to strike at your ankles in the undergrowth.
It seems that the ‘pacing calculator’ is out to ensure that these undercurrents of emotions are stoked independent of everything else we learn about the characters.
Spur of the moment amorousness in the back end of the show defied logic enough to cause this reviewer to puff out their cheeks in exasperation. Sure, your romance needs to bubble over out of control to be compelling, but come on guys: there is a time and a place!
The Essex Serpent goes big in the visual look and stuffs talented actors into its unhinged jaw which can probably carry you through quite happily.
But its tendency to swallow whole means that things are digested at a slow rate with unsatisfying bones poking through.
With romances that snake away from the characters, you may need to grab a net to capture your enjoyment of this tempter.
Words by Mike Record
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