At points in the six episodes, Will and Cora’s tussling debates threaten to dehumanise them, turning them into walking points of view rather than characters. Claire Danes is terrific in the role (which was originally attached to Keira Knightley before Covid interfered. American Danes sounds every bit as English here as Knightley would have) but given scene upon scene of Cora’s impassioned stance-taking, her performance tends towards the emphatic. The same can be said for desperate gloom of fisherman Henry Banks (Gerard Kearns) whose family falls victim to the serpent, and the mouth-foaming, Revelations-based fear of curate Evansford. The larger-than-life tone though, suits this strange story and its bursts of Victorian melodrama.
Necessarily, the novel’s many letters have been converted into dialogue, which flattens out some of the book’s jauntier, ironic moments. The casting of Frank Dillane as Luke Garrett – no longer “the imp” but a romantic prospect in his own right – cuts through the earnestness and injects some necessary slyness. Dillane is memorable as the petulant, arrogant surgeon, and you can say the same for Hayley Squires as Martha. Both characters feel as enjoyably modern as any of us in their attitudes and appetites, and help to bring 1893 closer.
The immersion continues through the locations, which are made beautifully haunting by cinematographer David Raedeker and director Clio Barnard. The Gothic isolation of Cora’s rented cottage, tiny under vast, colour-streaked skies is sure to have more than a few of us daydreaming about stalking the mudflats to argue the nature of existence with a lanky, troubled vicar. (After all, there’s no real danger from the serpent. Biblical monsters don’t exist, do they?) However far from Aldwinter viewers may be, at least this well-cast, evocatively rendered, earnest drama can wholly transport us.
The Essex Serpent starts on Apple TV+ on Friday the 13th of May with a double-bill before the remaining four episodes arrive weekly.