A slow-burner period miniseries presentation of life in pre-modern times where rumour and superstition was acceptable and where nothing is as it seems - with a very strong cast leading from the front.
Starring: Claire Danes, Tom
Hiddleston, Hayley Squires, Frank Dillane
Direction: Clio Barnard
etlix may have beaten pretty much everyone to the streaming era but what it started has had a cascading effect. There are too many streaming platforms and each demands a fee for subscription. But if you do choose a streaming platform – in addition to Netflix or in place of it – a decent place to start would be Apple TV+ because of its originals programming.
A case in point: The Essex Serpent.
It brings together Claire Danes in her first show since Homeland and Tom Hiddleston in his first role since The Night Manager. Yes, technically he is also starring in and as Loki in a Marvel series but all that superhero stuff is too much to keep up with unless you spend months on your couch, eating junk food and try to understand how one show is linked to a movie and another show and pop goes the weasel.
So, two phenomenal actors and what does Apple TV+ do? They make a conscious effort of not reminding the viewer that Danes’ last role was of a CIA agent in Homeland or Hiddleston’s cool spy in The Night Manager or as the god of mischief (Loki).
The aerial opening scene of water and land with a blurry climate, the quiet music, and you know you’re about to witness a moody series.
It is grass, lake and while beautiful, there is an ominous quality that stays that way as a figure asks for forgiveness and says, “it was the serpent” that made her commit “sins”. And just when you’re trying to figure out what exactly is happening, the camera pans to two figures, one woman standing in the water, and a young girl who looks terrified as she hears cawing voices of birds in the sky.
The woman in the water has a cross and the girl runs until we hear and see nothing but silence. A gripping start, most certainly.
Adapted from the book of the same name by Sarah Perry, we are transported to Victorian London and see Claire Danes looking from behind the curtains of her home. In a dramatic change of genre, Danes is first introduced as Mrs. Cora Seaborne. What of her husband? That cannot be given away. He does appear, in more ways than one. But what kind of relationship they share is a mystery best learned when you view the miniseries.
Outside, she is walking with a doctor and tells him natural history is her passion, except she finds a gutter in the street and throws the jewelry that her husband always bought for her. But why? Who throws real jewelry? When viewed carefully, it is because how that jewelry is used. As she is talking to another woman, she wonders if going to a walk with Dr. Garrett was wrong. But was it? Another clue emerges as the woman she is talking to says, “You’re free now.”
It is, in this moment, you realize that she is an abused wife. As she reads a newspaper, she is caught by a story about a sea dragon that has been sighted in Essex.
And soon enough she goes to Essex, a far cry from London and the memories that haunt her to follow her passion.
Walk and walk and enter Mr. Hiddleston, who is Father Will Ransome, looking bruised. She helps him save something and in turn he tells her not to pay attention to stories and leave. There are two other characters, whom we were first introduced to at the start of the series except only one of them is alive, and the other is a mystery.
For others, Essex is a place where monstrous sea dragon does exist damaging livestock and people. But for Cora (Mrs. Seaborne), the walking and even standing before the sea, where said dragon could emerge, is a freedom she has longed for. Characters appear and go away, but those who do care for Cora don’t wish for her to move to Essex, let alone go to a village called Aldwater. However, she is not in mood to change her mind and is told that Father Will lives in Aldwater and perhaps he can keep an eye on her. She scoffs.
Dr. Garrett, who lost a patient, also arrives in Essex and learns she is living in Aldwater. He is not charmed by the idea of learning about a monstrous sea dragon in some secluded village but it is her passion and she is simply following it.
In all this, you also wonder about the status of a woman called Martha, who has been with Cora since the beginning? Are they platonic friends who have emerged out of a nightmare or is there more to their relationship? Does Cora think of the doctor as a friend or does she like him, as he presumes? Why is Father Will such a figure of disdain for the doctor?
A slow-pacer if there was ever one, you will not get the answers by the end of the first episode like a Downton Abbey or even a House of Cards.
This is a period miniseries where relationships are more uncertain, ambiguous and mysterious lurks. Why is Mrs. Cora Seaborne’s young son so offended by the Doctor’s visit? What makes him so different?
A fantasy, mystery and a thriller nicely wrapped with a terrific cast, The Essex Serpent will give you no answers until you reach the last episode. Why is the supposedly “boring” Father in Aldwater and Mrs. Cora Seaborne drawn to each other? What of Martha, who is the only ally Cora has had since day one?
Too many questions? Well, that is the thing with gripping period pieces. They do not give everything away from the first episode. What might seem like an unholy alliance, at first, can become something far more delicate and depict matters of the heart. And, what might seem like a friendship might never become something more for one person and much more for the other.
This is a series that is as much about the changing dynamics between people as it is about a sea monster and whether there is one that actually exists or a myth cannot be told or it might ruin the point of viewing.
The Essex Serpent isn’t one thing. It is many. It is a dramatic tale about why a man becomes a vicar and why a woman throws her jewelry in the gutter and what, if anything, puts them on the same road even though they didn’t meet like Romeo and Juliet but in an opposite fashion. This is a slow-burner and if, only if, you have the patience to see how these characters grow and what past did they leave behind, is the series for you.
What can be said is that big props should go to Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston – who truly embody these characters and leave behind any trace of their past works as a spy on the brink of a breakdown and the cool and composed spy who takes down a terrible criminal. Or, in an alternate scenario, dances between being the god of mischief as well as a secluded human being in The Essex Serpent. He is not binary and has great depth to him that only becomes clear as each episode is viewed – without procrastination.
If you’re looking for a mood piece, and actors who take on roles you never could’ve predicted in a story that is as much a fantasy as it is about rumour and superstition, theological arguments versus non-theological ideas, and life in a pre-modern setting, The Essex Serpent is a good choice. Otherwise, skip it and head back to Netflix where you can watch Shah Rukh Khan in Jawan.
Rating system: *Not on your life * ½ If you really must waste your time ** Hardly worth the bother ** ½ Okay for a slow afternoon only *** Good enough for a look see *** ½ Recommended viewing **** Don’t miss it **** ½ Almost perfect ***** Perfection