Superstition, science and faith collide in an Essex fishing village when a centuries-old rumour resurfaces about a biblical sea serpent haunting the waters. Some believe the beast has come to punish Aldwinter’s people for their sins. Others – like Tom Hiddleston’s vicar Will Ransome – don’t believe in it at all. Widower Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes) hypothesises that it’s an evolutionary throwback to the age of the dinosaur. Will’s fey wife Stella (Clémence Poésy) secretly welcomes it as her lord and saviour. So unfurls Apple TV+’s atmospheric six-episode adaptation of Sarah Perry’s celebrated 2016 novel.
The Essex Serpent is the latest in a line of quality Apple TV+ shows (Foundation, Severance, Pachinko) unlikely to get the audience they deserve because they weren’t made for a mainstream broadcaster or streaming service with higher subscriber base. This one has stars, beauty, brains, a transportive atmosphere and a quasi-hypnotic pull, and yet will likely slip quietly under the waterline while lesser shows make a bigger splash. It’s an injustice, but one that does no harm to Apple TV’s developing reputation as the connoisseur’s choice for weird, slow-burn drama.
Anna Symon’s TV adaptation retains a good deal of the novel’s weirdness and folk horror veins as the villagers respond to what they see as their diabolical judgement. Village curate Matthew Evansford (Michael Jibson) is the chief prophesier of doom, pitted against Will’s patient attempts to soothe his flock of their Pagan superstitions. Hiddleston is dashing as the troubled vicar; he may cut a Byronic figure striding against the bleak landscape but his character is all kindness, love and scholarly contemplation. Will and Cora’s is a meeting of minds, a battle of intellects.
The story’s serpent – whether it exists or not – becomes the connecting thread between a collection of characters and stories that make the late Victorian era feel pressingly modern. There’s Cora’s companion Martha (Hayley Squires), a devoted socialist and political reformer whose campaign to improve rental conditions and build social housing could be going on in London as we speak. There’s the cocky, irreverent Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane), a surgeon whose experimental methods put him at the forefront of his profession. And there’s Cora herself, mother to a neurodivergent son, and an amateur palaeontologist reconstructing herself after the death of her abusive husband.
At points in the six episodes, Will and Cora’s tussling debates threaten to dehumanise them, turning them into walking points of view rather than characters. Claire Danes is terrific in the role (which was originally attached to Keira Knightley before Covid interfered. American Danes sounds every bit as English here as Knightley would have) but given scene upon scene of Cora’s impassioned stance-taking, her performance tends towards the emphatic. The same can be said for desperate gloom of fisherman Henry Banks (Gerard Kearns) whose family falls victim to the serpent, and the mouth-foaming, Revelations-based fear of curate Evansford. The larger-than-life tone though, suits this strange story and its bursts of Victorian melodrama.
Necessarily, the novel’s many letters have been converted into dialogue, which flattens out some of the book’s jauntier, ironic moments. The casting of Frank Dillane as Luke Garrett – no longer “the imp” but a romantic prospect in his own right – cuts through the earnestness and injects some necessary slyness. Dillane is memorable as the petulant, arrogant surgeon, and you can say the same for Hayley Squires as Martha. Both characters feel as enjoyably modern as any of us in their attitudes and appetites, and help to bring 1893 closer.
The immersion continues through the locations, which are made beautifully haunting by cinematographer David Raedeker and director Clio Barnard. The Gothic isolation of Cora’s rented cottage, tiny under vast, colour-streaked skies is sure to have more than a few of us daydreaming about stalking the mudflats to argue the nature of existence with a lanky, troubled vicar. (After all, there’s no real danger from the serpent. Biblical monsters don’t exist, do they?) However far from Aldwinter viewers may be, at least this well-cast, evocatively rendered, earnest drama can wholly transport us.
The Essex Serpent starts on Apple TV+ on Friday the 13th of May with a double-bill before the remaining four episodes arrive weekly.