Gothic romance slithers onto Apple TV+ with thorny mystery The Essex Serpent

There’s a necessary social conscience at the heart of this Gothic novel adaptation, starring Claire Danes as an obsessive widow. Clarisse Loughrey gives a hiss of approval for The Essex Serpent.

The strangest thing about The Essex Serpent, Apple TV+’s six-episode adaptation of the Sarah Perry novel, is that the horror is only ever a train ride away. Its protagonist, recent widow and enthusiastic naturalist Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes), decides to pursue reports of a “sea dragon” in Essex’s Blackwater Estuary.

An admirer of geologist Charles Lyell, Cora believes the creature may, in fact, be some sort of plesiosaur that magically escaped extinction (don’t laugh—it’s the second most plausible explanation for the Loch Ness monster after “it’s made up”).

She packs her bags, ushers her young son out the door, and leaves the powder-white mansions of Bloomsbury, London. And, before we know it, she’s stepped out into what might as well be the pages of Jane Eyre—the village of Aldwinter, a picture of Gothic desolation, painted in a tuberculosis-choked palette of misery. In truth, I haven’t read Perry’s bestselling novel, so I can’t say for certain, but the Gothic here seems largely deployed as an aesthetic, rather than an entire sensibility.

It certainly looks the part: there are ritual spells and mass possession, while a fata morgana, a mirage out at sea, twinkles like a dangerous secret. Dustin O’Halloran and Herdis Stefansdottir’s score is all queasy violins, that drip out notes like blood from a sacrifice.

But scrub those elements away and The Essex Serpent, without its guises, moves like a standard period melodrama. Cora leaves behind the doctor, Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane), with whom she’s developed a swift flirtation. In Aldwinter, she finds herself drawn to the local pastor, Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston), who’s married to the quiet but steady Stella (Clémence Poésy). Cora and Luke, perhaps, are too similarly minded. She likes the intellectual challenge of Will, the gentle tussle between science and religion, grounded in a mutual understanding that both require a leap of faith.

The Essex Serpent, though it may so soberly call itself “prestige TV”, isn’t afraid to indulge in pure period romanticism. Hiddleston, an actor who looks more at home in the past than he does the present, gets to stride around in a half-unbuttoned shirt and flowing overcoat. When Cora and Will’s passions do finally crawl up to the surface, it is, of course, in the middle of a dance scene. Clio Barnard, who directs all six episodes, doesn’t usually work in quite this register. Her films, including The Selfish Giant and Ali & Ava, are grounded in modern times and very modern concerns, though they’re always laced with a touch of lyricism.

But she might very well be The Essex Serpent’s saving grace, her innate humanism finding a way to fold in both the intellectual and the emotional. There are substantial themes here—how superstition, for example, is often a tool of men used to terrorise women, or the difficulty of maintaining bodily autonomy in the realms of both medicine and faith. There is a danger here that, with so many ideas bouncing off the walls, characters might become nothing but message bearers.

That’s never more evident than in the part of Cora’s maid and close companion, Martha (Hayley Squires), who sits around reading the Communist manifesto and explaining “why I became a socialist”. It’s a little on the nose, but Squires’ performance is so unfussily raw, and Barnard gives that performance so much room to breathe, that Martha soon becomes the necessary social conscience of The Essex Serpent—the same one that’s always been present in Barnard’s work.

Danes, meanwhile, offers Cora a kind of teary-eyed clarity. She also immediately captures something that Anna Symon’s script only spells out in the final few episodes—the wild abandon of a woman finally freed from an abusive marriage (she nervously wears the scars of his cruelty around her neck, always hidden inside her collar), suddenly incapacitated by the brand new feeling of choice. “I can do what I want now that he’s dead,” she declares. But what does she want? And who does she risk dragging into the whirlpool of her own chaotic emotions?

Those are the kind of thorny emotions we’re not too used to seeing stuffed inside a petticoat. The Essex Serpent may turn up in the same old frock, but stick around—it’s got something to say.