The Essex Serpent Review: A Beast-Hunt Gives Way To A Gorgeous, Eerie Gothic Romance

The Essex Serpent looms over the foggy, water-locked town at the center of the new Apple TV+ series of the same name. Nevermind that the residents of the Victorian-era community rarely if ever see the sea creature: it haunts them like a devil, often seeming to kill or capture their vulnerable residents in the night. Enter Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes), a recent widow struck by a wild hair for adventure, who moves to Essex with her young son to track down the legendary monster.

"The Essex Serpent" is a bit of a Trojan Horse, a Gothic romantic drama wearing a folk horror overcoat. But if you can rid yourself of the idea that The Loch Ness Monster's cousin will be around every corner, it's also a thoroughly captivating saga. The six-episode limited series is based on a 2016 novel by Sarah Perry, yet it feels much older than that. In a time of period romance ruled by shows like "Bridgerton" and "The Gilded Age," there's no inescapably modern sheen to "The Essex Serpent." It reads more like a stalwart adaptation of something classic, firmly entrenched in its late 1800s time period, and all the better for it.

A saga based on superstition

Cora's interest in cryptozoology and knack for wearing pants pretty quickly lands her in hot water in Essex, where townsfolk become convinced she's either an enchantress or an incurable source of bad luck. It doesn't help that Cora arrives with a constellation of companions who defy the standards of a nuclear family. Along with her young son, she brings her politically active servant Martha ("In The Earth" actress Hayley Squires), and her experiment-prone physician friend, Dr. Luke Garnett (Frank Dillane, "Fear the Walking Dead") soon follows.

The widow hasn't been in Essex for longer than a few moments when she stumbles upon Will (Tom Hiddleston), a modest and taciturn pastor who's struggling to free a trapped sheep from the watery muck that surrounds the town. Without hesitation, she muddies her clothes alongside him, and a partnership based on practicality, equality, and a strange sort of chemistry is born. Only Will's married, and he's not the only one around who's drawn in by Cora's enthusiasm and beauty.

Despite the great beast in its title, "The Essex Serpent" is a small story. It's content to ruminate on the human connections between these people, the religious superstition of their community, and the vague spookiness of turn-of-the-century life itself. At times, it calls to mind the tales of Daphne du Maurier and the Bronte sisters. The drama's loyalty to the deliberate pace and big emotions of Gothic fiction–which here ebb and flow like the waters along the town's edge–will surely vex some viewers and entice others. Yet the show has enough impressive formal elements to keep it engaging, even when the story occasionally lags.

Progress and the push against it

Filmmaker Clio Barnard ("Ali & Ava") directs, and imbues the setting with a misty edge of danger, as if something just off-screen is about to strike. Word of the monster sets the town into a frenzy, and strange elements–a suddenly mute girl, a class full of kids falling into fits–begin to stack up. Barnard shoots the series as both a dread-building horror fable and a barely-restrained romance, but never lets any shot fall flat. Bathed in pale sunlight and filmed with the snake-like surrounding waterscape always in mind, the series is eerily beautiful. A gorgeous, string-heavy score by composers Dustin O'Halloran and Herdís Stefánsdóttir accompanies the series, and comes to a marvelous, heaving crescendo in the show's penultimate episode.

Romantic entanglements aside, "The Essex Serpent" is obviously about progress and the push against it. Perry's novel is set in 1893, a few years before Stephen Soderbergh's gonzo surgical drama "The Knick," when medical science still bordered on butchery. As a surgeon and researcher who would be right at home in The Knick, Dillane's smirking Dr. Luke is one of the show's most compelling characters, either a cutting-edge practitioner or a mad scientist depending on who one asks. Hiddleston's Will, a man of faith who works doggedly to tamp down local rumor and hysteria, also stands in sharp, somber contrast against most everyone around him.

With its eye turned towards the near-unstoppable spread of misinformation and fear, "The Essex Serpent" tackles topics that are inarguably timely today. Yet it never stoops to winking at modern audiences, instead grounding itself squarely in its engrossing source material and letting its conclusion speak for itself. Ultimately a picturesque, spellbinding Gothic romance with a penchant for atmospheric spookiness, "The Essex Serpent" is a beast that's worth hunting down.

"The Essex Serpent" premieres May 13, 2022, on Apple TV+.