The Pitch: 1890s England: a time where the rapid rise of scientific knowledge — medicine, technology, archaeology — clashed with Christian superstitions and fairy tales. In the middle is Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes), a woman recently widowed from a wealthy, abusive spouse, who sees the opportunity to find out who she is and what she really wants out of life.
A fortuitous report out of Essex gives her the chance: A winged, fanged “serpent” is reportedly snatching people up outside the sleepy port town of Aldwinter. Armed with her wits, her interest in “naturalism,” her curious son Francis, and adventurous maid/companion Martha (Hayley Squires), Cora leaves her comfortable London life to solve the mystery once and for all.
But she quickly finds herself at odds with the paranoid, God-fearing people of the town, who quickly start to suspect her when the body count begins to rise. Her only solace comes in the form of the town vicar Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston), who balances his curiosity about Cora’s search with caring for his deathly ill wife Stella (Clémence Poésy). Before long, whether the creature exists or not becomes less important than the human loves, hates, and beliefs with which Cora and Will have to contend.
A Liberated Woman: Sarah Perry’s 2016 novel The Essex Serpent was a surprise smash hit, a sizzling Gothic romance with more than a hint of the supernatural, teeming with natural life and the religious paranoia that comes with the unknown. To their great credit, Perry (who adapts her own novel), co-writer Anna Symon (the 2019 series Deep Water), and director Clio Barnard (Dark River — I’m sensing a theme) capture that writhing, pensive spirit of the book across six well-paced episodes, buoyed by an incredible cast and tactile, sensitive filmmaking.
Be forewarned: This is hardly the kind of Victorian X-Files pastiche that early trailers and the logline might imply. The titular serpent that terrorizes the people of Aldwinter (and seemingly sends its children into fits of collective psychosis in one chilling sequence) may or may not exist; Cora thinks it does, her idealistic search fueled at least a little bit by her search for purpose after finally escaping the prison of societal expectations. Will, on the other hand, believes it myth, paradoxically skeptical even in his deep and abiding faith.