Friday, May 13, 2022

The Essex Serpent, on Apple TV+

Cora Seabourne is finally acting on her ambition to become a renowned paleontologist, or maybe rather a cryptozoologist. Up until recently, she has only been a case study in the folly of the Victorian era’s restrictive gender roles and arranged marriages. However, she is about to celebrate her new-found freedom by investigating reports of a sea creature in Apple TV+’s six-episode The Essex Serpent, adapted by Anna Symon from Sarah Perry’s novel.

In addition to being an early feminist, Seabourne is also ahead of her time refusing extraordinary measures to save her dying husband. Frankly, in his case, she arguably rebuffed some rather ordinary measures as well. Regardless, she is now rich and single, which certainly interests her abusive late husband’s physician, Dr. Luke Garrett. In fact, he even follows her to Essex where Seabourne is holidaying, to investigate the local sea monster, blamed for a series of woes that have befallen the community.

Naturally, Seabourne hopes to discover some sort of cryptid. However, the local vicar, Will Ransome, assumes it is some form of mass hysteria, like the Salem witchcraft paranoia. It would indeed appear the vicar is the only voice of reason in town, but the other pastor, not so much. Inevitably, Seabourne’s insensitivity rubs the locals the wrong way. She also conveniently refuses to notice the torch-carrying of both Dr. Garrett and her Marxist maid, Martha. However, she is keenly aware of the scandalous romantic tension building between her and the married Ransome.

Symon’s adaptation is frustrating for many reasons. First and foremost, it isn’t even sufficiently interested in the titular Essex Serpent to treat it with any sort of suspenseful ambiguity. Instead, it is simply used as a crude, didactic metaphor. Even still, there is no real resolution regarding the villagers’ curse-like misfortunes they attribute to it.

Indeed, after spinning its wheels over several episodes worth of over-heated melodrama, the series just ends with a hum-drum thud. It doesn’t pay off and the trip getting there is not particularly interesting.

Yet, Tim Hiddleston is still quite compelling as the conflicted and guilt-wracked Ransome. Ironically, his performance probably still counts as one of the more sympathetic clergy characters recently seen in streaming series, sort of like a chaste version of Richard Chamberlain in
The Thorn Birds.

Unfortunately, Clare Danes seems badly miscast as Seabourne, who always comes across cold, distant, and shockingly unintuitive  even though her admirers are constantly telling us how charming she is. Likewise, Frank Dillane’s Garrett will strike viewers as too young and dumb to have completed medical school, let alone developing innovative heart surgery techniques. Probably the best work in the series comes from Jamael Westman as his earnest associate, Dr. George Spencer.

All six installments were directed by Clio Barnard, who helmed some aesthetically distinctive films, particularly
The Selfish Giant and The Arbor, but Essex Serpent is visually and stylistically quite conventional. It has the look and texture of a routine BBC period drama, with nothing special to distinguish it or convey the merits of Perry’s novel. Not recommended, The Essex Serpent starts streaming today (5/13) on Apple TV+.