For as long as human history was recorded, myths and monsters have emerged as a prominent theme. While the Ancient Greeks came up with a complicated set of gods, monsters, and deities to explain how the world functioned, other cultures had their own set of demons to explain what could not be put into words otherwise. While some learned to fear these gods and creatures, others found solace in their existence. That is the story of the British novel-turned-movie The Essex Serpent.
The novel was published in 2016 by author Sarah Perry, and it was only her second book to hit the market. The book was an unexpected hit, selling over 200,000 copies, and received mainstream media attention. After five years, it would net almost 360,000 sales, thus making it a success in the literary market. Apple ordered an adaptation of the beloved book in the summer of 2020, and Keira Knightley was supposed to star in the series as Cora Seaborne, its protagonist. The series was directed by Clio Barnard (The Arbor, The Selfish Giant), and she is also an executive producer. Its screenplay was by Anna Symon.
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Knightley would ultimately drop out of the project, and award-winning actress Claire Danes (Romeo + Juliet, Homeland) would take on the leading role. Paired opposite of her is Tom Hiddleston (Thor, Midnight in Paris) portraying the Essex pastor Will Ransome. Cora finds a sense of kinship with Will, making them a stark juxtaposition and representation of different worlds. Frank Dillane, Hayley Squires, Clémence Poésy, and Jamael Westman, among others, round out the supporting cast.
Religion and Science Intersect
The Essex Serpent does not come without its historical roots; the Victorian era was notorious for its interest in ancient history, specifically Egyptian history, and general paleontology. Victorian England was smitten with relics of the past, the reptilian fossils discovered at the beginning of the century becoming a source of fascination and interest. It is this interest driving the main character of The Essex Serpent, Cora, to the English seaside in search of a mythological serpent. Cora is a footprint of her era when women were in search of fossils to put together the clues of a long-gone collective memory.
This acute interest in Cora distinguishes her almost immediately in the opening episodes of the series. In Victorian England, she is doomed to a particular kind of life when her husband dies. Now widowed, as she walks with the doctor on the bustling streets of London, she explains her fascination with the natural world and history. He looks at her strangely as she crouches down near a grate, exclaiming that she can hear the river beneath them. When he invites her to attend one of his medical school lectures on surgery, she is given strange looks in a hall dominated by men. The only other woman she is with looks away and makes a remark of disgust, but Cora cannot take her eyes off of the surgery.
This otherness follows her when she moves to Essex. The world of Essex on the screen is the exact opposite of London. Previously bright, sunny, and full of narrow streets and people, Essex is foggy, gloomy, and almost destitute at times. Its harsher, dark, coloring makes it seem otherworldly at times, a place where such a beast could exist. But Cora’s obsession with the serpent clashes with the local preacher’s (Hiddleston), as he believes that the serpent is the product of a lack of faith and the human mind.
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A Missing Girl Turns Fear into Paranoia
In this small town, it seems like this is the answer to the source of fear: a girl has gone missing. The same rumors that sparked Cora’s devout research on the serpent’s origins were created as a facet of shifting agency and blame. No one in this small village could have possibly taken the child, so the only one who could be blamed was the serpent. Thus begins the ideological split in the series: while many are content to call this an act of God, Cora seeks out the truth through means of logic and science.
This marks her even more as an outsider, as someone who will be looked at with suspicion. Hiddleston’s Will, however, straddles the line between wholeheartedly devoting himself to the religious meanings behind what is going on and the scientific debate brought on by the town’s newcomer. In six episodes, these two have a lot of ground to cover, demonstrating the limitations behind the recent trend of miniseries.
The miniseries is a slow burn that does not reveal its true intentions immediately, but it is worth a shot. With its many sweeping shots of the English countryside and marshes, characters stumbling through the weeds to search for something that may or may not exist, it exposes itself as something deeper than merely hunting for a monster. It is an exploration of grief, humanity, and a budding romance between the preacher and Cora. Even in the darkest moments, there are pockets of beauty in establishing shots or how characters begin to sing in a moment of grieving.
The Essex Serpent moves with surgical precision, becoming a balancing act between the interpersonal relationships between characters, the mythos of the serpent itself, and then a focus on a doctor’s attempt to create a new form of radical surgery: operating on one’s heart while they are still alive. There is indeed a love triangle woven into the depths of this story, but the romance tends to drag due to a lack of chemistry between the two leads. Hiddleston and Danes are excellent actors, but together in this drama something simply does not work.
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An Extensive Story on Privilege, Gender, and Expectations
One standout performance is Danes as Cora. While she has proven herself during earlier roles in the television series Homeland, as well as one of her earliest roles in the well-known series My So-Called Life, Danes are magnetic on the screen in The Essex Serpent. She convincingly portrays a widowed woman overcoming the trauma of her husband’s abusive death, throwing herself into a new passion and potentially finding love along the way. Although she is openly blamed for being the source of the town’s bad fortune as of late, giving way to hints of a history of witch hunting, she picks her head up and continues to forge her path independent of what other people think.
Considering the story is set in Victorian England, it is refreshing to see a woman break free of the confines of a strict society—although this may be a double-edged sword. Undertones of class relations are brought up in the form of Cora’s maid, who is an avid socialist. Another side story brings together Indian immigrants in need of surgery, and they have no one to turn to in this new land. However, despite her grief and personal issues, Cora’s story is indicative of a particular brand of privilege hashed out repeatedly in literature and movies about the era. While she does manage to break free of the Victorian ideologies that women should be confined to the home, she is only able to do what she can do because she has money.
Another critical issue affecting the series is this: it simply is trying to cover too much in six episodes. As the focus shifts from the world of Essex and the monster back to London, Cora’s maid is trying to leverage her position to make the world better with her communist and socialist background. In another side plot, the London doctor smitten with Cora tries to create a technique to successfully operate on a heart without killing the patient. All these threads provide an extensive amount of metaphors and subtle messages, leaving the story dangling at times as it grasps to connect these.
This is not a story for everyone. It unleashes a moody, emotional atmosphere that interrogates the intersection when religion and science collide. While a show like Bridgerton may romanticize and dramatize Regency-era England—notorious for its strict rules about dress, society, and social etiquette—The Essex Serpent is a gothic true to elements of Victorian England. There will be no outright displays of affection or romance, nor does it bring a sense of humor to the table. Some may find that unappealing, but the miniseries’ demographic would most likely be looking for character studies in the depths of this small town.
The Essex Serpent is available to stream on Apple TV+. The first two episodes were released on May 13, 2022, and the remaining episodes will be released weekly.
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From Ashley Hajimirsadeghi