The Essex Serpent might sound like something you’d unwittingly encounter at the urinals of the Be At One in Chelmsford, but, from the first moments of this adaptation of Sarah Perry’s acclaimed 2016 novel, it’s clear this is something very different. This is Essex at its most primal: a gloomy, ominous landscape that, pulled back to this late-19th-century setting, feels trapped in the mists of prehistory. In short, a far cry from Gemma Collins.
Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes), a strikingly independent woman of newly acquired means (thanks to the death of her villainous husband), leaves London for the Essex coast, where strange rumours of a winged serpent abound. There, she encounters local vicar Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston), and witnesses a society on the brink of collapse, as whispers of the monster beneath the surface bring about a stand-off between Christianity, science, and folkloric tradition. While Will represents rational religion, in its dying days, Cora is present at the genesis of scientific understanding. “Natural history is my passion,” she announces proudly at the funeral of her brutish spouse. “We must all follow our passions.”
To Essex, then, to follow up sightings of an enormous aquatic snake that is killing children and dogs, and generally being a nuisance to the collective sanity of the residents of Aldwinter, a tiny village on the marshes. “I hope you don’t disapprove of my coming,” Cora tells Will, as she begins their flirty badinage. “You’re trying to understand, trying to find the truth; I approve of that,” Will responds, solemnly. This friendship – platonic, while Will’s wife Stella (In Bruges’ Clémence Poésy) is in the picture (though she has made the time-honoured mistake of coughing in a period drama) – is the crux of The Essex Serpent. Faith versus fact, myth versus history, fear versus firmness.
If these moral tensions aren’t enough for you, viewers are also treated to a dollop of sexual tension, as the statuesque protagonists tramp around the Essex countryside, glowing in the warmth of their newfound friendship and, presumably, how attractive they are. These puppyish displays don’t go unnoticed by those around them, in particular by revolutionary surgeon Luke Garrett (Harry Potter’s Frank Dillane), who is the third corner in the love triangle, and Cora’s socialist companion Martha (I, Daniel Blake’s Hayley Squires). The casting, by and large, doesn’t quite work: Danes lacks the natural warmth to make Cora’s magnetism feel authentic, while Poésy and Squires underplay their roles to the point of inertia. Hiddleston, meanwhile, is plausible as a toff who likes mudlarking, while Dillane’s hair styling makes it feel like he should be singing vocals for Kasabian.
But the performances fade into the background, as the background comes to the foreground. The real star of the show is the murky estuary, where the fog rolls in and the treacherous waters are cloaked in bad omens and superstition. “What are you hoping to find?” Will asks Cora. “A tangible link to our past,” she replies, and it’s hard not to agree that this landscape might be hiding “living fossils”, the remnants of a past that is all but extinct. Of course – it should be noted for sceptics of fantasy programming – this is, to lift the reverend’s words, “an allegory... There is no serpent in Essex.” Instead, it’s a psychological portrait of a community on the edge of a nervous breakdown. The paranoia that blankets the village like a sea mist is reminiscent of Carol Morley’s The Falling or Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. With each twist of the fabled serpent’s body, the pitch of hysteria rises a note.
It’s a shame, therefore, that against this beautiful backdrop, the human drama never crackles. Directed by Clio Barnard – whose films, which include The Arbor and Ali & Ava, have established her as one of Britain’s most interesting filmmakers – the show seems to forget that, along with all the portentous symbolism, there needs to be a spark of wit or a flicker of emotional depth. “The serpent is an invention,” Will proclaims earnestly. “It is a symptom of the times we live in... of great changes that bring real fears with them.” But it is the fear of the serpent that the show grabs by the tail; the existential anxieties of the era prove altogether more slippery.