Review by C.J. Bunce
It has nearly everything you need for the perfect Gothic series, a mystery and romance that couldn’t have been filmed in a more suspenseful and intriguing atmosphere. The British Apple TV series is The Essex Serpent, a mystery about a Loch Ness-inspired creature observed in a small rural town in Essex called Altwinter, and a widow who seeks out the creature and instead becomes intertwined in a series of deaths, finding herself as the pariah. Is the creature a myth or real? Lead actors Claire Danes, Tom Hiddleston, and Clémence Poésy highlight a series that viewers will be eager to return to each episode, but unfortunately it ultimately loses its focus, preventing it from rating among the best of the genre.
Danes plays newly widowed member of the London gentry, Cora Seaborne. Her husband did not treat her well, so the idea of merging her interest in paleontology and zoology seems just the thing to help her to move forward in her life. She has a young son, Frankie, played by Caspar Griffiths, a bright young performer who becomes integral to some of the show’s key sequences. Cora and Frankie befriend the local pastor Will Ransome and his wife Stella, played by Hiddleston and Poésy. The story yields to become more Gothic romance than Gothic mystery, when Will inexplicably falls for Cora, just as wife Stella becomes terminally ill.
People in the small town start disappearing as Cora and Frankie arrive, and naturally the red-haired foreigner is pointed at for the blame, along with the mythical serpent they firmly believe is attacking townspeople for their sins. Based on a novel by Sarah Perry, it’s the two leads that make a picture-perfect Gothic pair up there with Rebecca’s Maxim and Mrs. de Winter, Jane Eyre and Rochester, and Crimson Peak’s Edith Cushing and Thomas Sharpe. But their characterization pales next to the performance by Clémence Poésy’s Stella, who refuses to take on the typical jilted wife role. In fact a better story may have followed her character off the screen, but that’s probably more due to the actress’s performance than the character.
The series includes themes of economic and political failures, social class roles, and the stigma of sexual orientation for men and women. A charismatic Dr. Frankenstein meets Doctor Strange-type surgeon falls for and befriends Cora, following her to Essex. He’s played by Frank Dillane, known best as Tom Riddle in the Harry Potter films. Jamael Westman plays George Spencer, the doctor’s confidante. Spencer comes from wealth and has his eyes on Cora’s live-in companion, Martha, played by Hayley Squires, who is less servant than equal. But Martha has her eyes on Cora. So it’s pretty easy to see this is as much soap opera material as the stuff of historical drama or mystery.
Each of these characters separately is fascinating: Cora and Frankie, Will and Stella, the doctor, and George and Martha. But they all seem like this story only scratches the surface, and never quite finds the best moments for any of them.
More than the classic Gothic stories it aims for, the vibe of the plot is more The Dig (reviewed here) than something thrilling, but it is also not as compelling as that film (which we selected as the best film and drama of 2021 here at borg). It’s also missing all the things–except the look, the cinematography (here by David Raedeker), costumes (Jane Petrie), and production design (Alice Normington)–that made Tom Hiddleston’s last Gothic film, Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, work so well (we reviewed that movie here).
The plus is viewers only have to plug into six 50-minute episodes, and for that, it’s worth watching to the end for ambience alone. The series was written by Anna Symon and directed by Clio Barnard.
Catch The Essex Serpent, streaming now on Apple+.