Apple TV Plus is having a great year. In an increasingly crowded streaming market, the service is far more selective than its rivals it puts its time and resources into, but it clearly goes for quality over quantity.
This week’s release continues the fine tradition Apple TV has already built with the outstanding spy drama Slow Horses and genre-bending thriller Shining Girls, as well as another prestige drama, The Essex Serpent.
The drama is an adaptation of Sarah Perry’s 2016 novel and is directed by Loki star Tom Hiddleston and Claire Danes, the actress’s first major role since her long-running turn in the explosive drama Homeland. They are supported by Sense8 and Fear The Walking Dead star Frank Dillane, I, Daniel Blake breakout star Hayley Squires and The Tunnel’s Clémence Poésy.
Clio Barnard, director of the acclaimed indie dramas The Selfish Giant and Dark River, will direct all six episodes of the adaptation, while Anna Symon, who credited Ms. Wilson and Deep Water, will direct the scripts. took care.
The show’s first two episodes aired today (May 13) on Apple TV Plus, with the remaining four episodes airing weekly after that.
Moving through the mire…
Perry’s novel is set in the early 1890s and largely revolves around Cora Seaborne, the role Danes took on after the show’s first casting, Keira Knightley, left during the pandemic.
When we meet Cora, she has just been widowed and is about to bury her husband, who is soon revealed as a terrible bully who has physically and emotionally abused her horribly and systematically. Freed from her husband’s tyranny, Cora, a woman with a burning interest in the natural sciences, reads about sightings of a mysterious snake in Aldwinter, a fictional village in rural Essex, and decides to follow her passion and go there. accompanied by her young son and Hayley Squires’ Martha, her old maid, who has become more of a live-in companion in her years of service.
dr. Frank Dillane’s Luke Garrett is saddened to see her leave for the Essex coast, an arrogant young doctor who cared for Cora’s late husband and has fallen in love with her in the meantime.
In Aldwinter, Cora Hiddlestons meets Will Ransome, the village pastor. Ransom, a thoughtful man, a world away from the fire and brimstone of many of his clergy, has struggled to convince his congregation that the serpent is a myth and to prevent hysteria from breaking out among them.
Initially, Ransome is suspicious of Cora, believing she will shake up an already agitated village as she searches for the truth about the snake and its connection to the disappearance of a local girl. He is also concerned for the well-being of his wife, Stella of Clémence Poésy, who is clearly very ill.
As the story progresses, the lives, motives, wishes, desires, and fears of the characters become intertwined and a series of complex love stories, both romantic and otherwise, begin to play out.
Don’t come in search of gods and monsters
Anyone drawn to the fantastic and monstrous title will soon be disappointed by The Essex Serpent. Despite the mythical beast acting as a catalyst for so much of what happens in the story, this is a very human drama.
Hiddleston has seen so much of his career taken up with his dedication to the Marvel Cinematic Universe that in recent years it’s been rare to see him out of Loki costume, but here he is in great shape as the hard-fought Ransome.
Danes’ accent is a bit up and down at times, but she delivers a great turn in a role that runs through so much of the story. Likewise, Squires’ passionate, fiery Martha and Dillane’s smooth (no pun intended) Garrett are excellent mainstays.
no longer dark
Clio Barnard’s film history is one of unrelenting gloom. She first came to prominence with The Arbor, an experimental offering that was part documentary and part feature, but explored the tragic life of doomed playwright Andrea Dunbar in a profound and heartbreaking way. She followed that up with The Selfish Giant, another ruthless piece of mischief about two 13-year-old boys being exploited by a local criminal, and Dark River, where she asked Ruth Wilson to spend three weeks learning how to herd sheep. as part of her preparation for the part about two warring siblings who are forced to return to their family farm. The novel it is based on is set in southern France, but Barnard moved the action to the dark moors of northern England, and the cinematography and landscapes, all in her grey, faded style, can be seen here.
Perry’s novel takes on much of the wildness of early 20th-century Essex, a land of mud and drenched in rain, and Barnard and her team bring that life here superbly. However, it does make for a very stiff visual spectacle. Fortunately, the performances more than make up for it.
The Essex Serpent is an adult drama in every sense of the word. The viewer is not taught anything, and while Symon’s script is carefully crafted and timed, this is a drama that is as much about what isn’t said as what is.
That doesn’t make it any less captivating though, and you’ll find yourself getting sucked in as the story progresses. The novel’s big themes, science versus faith, love in all its forms, all at a time of massive change in the UK as it prepares for the 20th century, have been handled expertly for the most part, but it sometimes feels like it’s happening. too much. Perry’s book is a big, twisting thing, which uses its supernatural premise to view society’s many social and personal inequalities, and in an effort to convey that, the drama sometimes feels like the focus is less than laser-like.
The drama where Hiddleston, Danes, Dillane and Poesy is where it really sings and it becomes a complex, compelling and heartbreaking love story completely devoid of schmaltz or cynicism. It’s another win for Apple.
The first two episodes of The Essex Serpent air today (May 13) on Apple TV Plus, and the remaining four episodes air weekly.