The Essex Serpent’ Review: Claire Danes, the Disrupter


Claire Danes has come in from the cold. Two years after we left her snooping around Moscow in “Homeland,” she has re-emerged in Victorian England, pottering about the coast in “The Essex Serpent” on Apple TV+. Things are still pretty chilly for her, though.
Danes plays the wealthy widow Cora Seaborne in this six-episode mini-series, an adaptation of the award-winning novel by Sarah Perry, which premiered Friday. Cora has a lot in common with Carrie Mathison in “Homeland”: She’s headstrong, charming, a little narcissistic, coping with trauma and always the smartest person in the parlor.
The show begins with the disappearance of a young girl in the gloomy marshes of Essex, which is blamed on a mysterious sea creature, and the death of Cora’s husband in their London mansion after a long illness. There are hints that Cora suffered abuse at his hands, and his death liberates her; she can do what she wants, and she follows her passion for natural history to the fishing village where the creِature was supposedly seen, thinking that it might be a plesiosaur, a dinosaur that has evaded evolution. Freed from one monster, she sets off in search of another.
There’s a lot going on inside “The Essex Serpent,” not all of it successful, though the mini-series is generally handsome, literate and quite well acted. The most pedestrian aspect is the social-change drama, in which Cora and her politically minded lady’s maid and best friend, Martha (Hayley Squires), try to empower women and help the poor. Better, though never as creepy or as evocative as you’d like, is the Gothic horror story, which sees the isolated and superstitious villagers grabbing their crucifixes and sharpening stakes as more disappearances are attributed to the serpent.
More successful still is the Victorian drama of ideas, in which Cora and a brilliant, buoyantly conceited young surgeon, Luke (an excellent Frank Dillane), stand in for Darwin and Freud, and God is represented by Will (Tom Hiddleston), a learned and rational local vicar who insists that the serpent is a product of the villagers’ imaginations but begins to have doubts.
And then there’s the associated love story, which is what you’ll take away from “The Essex Serpent,” not necessarily because it’s so sexy or interesting but because the actors involved are so hard to take your eyes off. The single Luke and the married Will (whose wife, played by Clémence Poésy, is unusually accommodating) are both besotted with Cora, while she, still scarred by her marriage, struggles to find a way to respond. The passions play out in the village and in posh London environs with entertaining displays of jealousy, tragic forbearance and smashed crockery.
As always with Danes, there is no question why the men in the story are so drawn to her character — Cora’s intelligence and vibrancy and depth of emotion leap out at you, present in every movement and change of expression. When she arrives at the coast, she is a force of nature, her powerful curiosity finally free to follow its lead, a condition the show captures when she rushes into the mud without hesitation to help a stranger — who happens to be Will — free a trapped sheep.
Dillane, who played the heroic heroin addict Nick Clark in “Fear the Walking Dead,” is Danes’s match as the callow but sensitive Luke, hitting the right mix of irritating and endearing. Hiddleston, taking a break from his duties in the Marvel universe, is perfectly fine but a little stiff and bland; that’s probably because Will has been contrived as a stick figure who mediates between Cora and the suspicious, resentful villagers.
The director, Clio Barnard, and her cinematographer, David Raedeker, make good use of the tortured, waterlogged topography of the Essex coast; the show’s opening shots, floating above the otherworldly landscape, turn it into a living thing as monstrous as the creature thought to be haunting it. And the story, under the lead writer Anna Symon, holds your interest as Claire’s determined but blithe attempt to bring “a voice of reason” to the villagers turns her, in their minds and perhaps ours, into the monster.
“The Essex Serpent” never quite takes off in the way it should, though. In common with a lot of contemporary prestige-TV productions, it seems to have worked so hard and so carefully to achieve the right surface patina that it forgot about being exciting — there are surprises in the plot, but you rarely feel the shock of real surprise, or of vision, in the filmmaking. It’s a tasteful and static enterprise that deserves attention because it comes to life whenever Danes is onscreen.


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