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Essex Serpent review: Apple TV+ adaptation is already a rare beast

Star rating 4 out of 5.

The Essex Serpent from Apple TV+ is that rare mythical beast: an adaptation that looks just as compelling as its famous source.

Based on Sarah Perry’s bestselling book, the series stars Claire Dance and Tom Hiddleston and is set in Victorian England. Danes are heartbreakingly cool as Cora Seaborn, a recently widowed amateur naturalist who moves to Essex to investigate rumors of a feral viper.

Cora is affected by years of abuse at the hands of her sadistic late husband: a coiled (possibly even serpentine) scar on her neck exposed to her skin by a hot curved poker, an incident we’re particularly witnessing as the horrific flashback.

Moments after his funeral, we see Cora impulsively getting rid of the earrings she’s wearing, and sending them to the Thames, before explaining that her husband often buys her jewelry (in a flashback again, we see him strangling her with a sparkling necklace).

However, Cora is by no means friendless: she is actually courted by her late husband’s doctor, Major Luke, and she is loved by her loyal servant Martha. With the latter’s support, Cora makes a decision to reclaim her life and pursue her passion for natural history, beginning with a trip to the swamps of Essex to look at recent reports of a legendary snake, which she believes is a type of plesiosaur.

Claire Dance (cast as Cora after Keira Knightley withdrew) perfectly fills that role, giving the character energy and nervousness as well as a gritty physical presence, striding through Essex mud as if it’s all her own.

Meanwhile, the series is lovely to look at, in particular, at evoking the dreary – but charming – winter landscape that Cora finds there.

Sometimes – as with many dramas these days – you’ll find yourself staring at the screen, trying to pinpoint the details of a night scene lit only by candlelight or burning torches. Other than that, many of the shots look like they’re stepping into a Victorian-era palette — although the series certainly doesn’t shy away from some gruesome realities of everyday life, including animals with pointed skins to ward off the “monster.”

Cora found Essex a superstitious place (“it’s a country that burns witches,” Martha jokes), and by no means welcoming: On a walk during her first day in the county, she came across a man—blood and mud—wrestling with a sheep stuck in a swamp.

She comes to his aid, but receives little thanks; As soon as he realizes she is a tourist who catches an “Essex Serpent,” he tells her to leave: “There’s nothing to see. Go home.”

Claire Danes stars in The Essex Serpent

Of course, that particularly rude guy turns out to be Will Ransom (Hiddleston), the same deputy she’s scheduled to meet after a mutual friend hooks them up.

Hiddleston gives the audience calculated flashes of Will’s hidden fears and anxieties, all of which stem from his patrons’ superstitions about the serpent, which he sees as a threat to their faith.

Neither Cora nor Will was what the other expected (both initially assumed that the other would be old, sloppy, and boring). At the dinner table with Will’s wife and children, Cora challenges his belief that a feral serpent must be a fairy tale.

“If I may be in any doubt, how can I take care of my flock?” He opposes.

However, by the final moments of Episode One, the tragic hits, and Cora’s arrival sees cracks begin to appear in both the community’s facade and Will’s minute – letting suspicion creep in.

The Essex Serpent will premiere on Apple TV+ on Friday, May 13th. Learn how to sign up for Apple TV + hereCheck out our Drama Hub for more news, interviews and features or find something to watch Our TV guide.

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