It was a kind of gold rush to adapt. As streaming services dominate programming, they need something to be broadcasted. Many of some things. Stories don’t seem to be getting written fast enough, and Netflix in particular has been gobbling up the rights to published (and publishing) books. Other streaming services are not far behind. “Station Eleven,” “Shining Girls,” “The Queen’s Gambit,” and “Anatomy of a Scandal” make up just a few of the recently modified fare.
But not all imagination gives way to the screen. Some novels do not succeed as performances, nor are they without serious paraphrasing. Needs more snake Not a note I thought I’d write myself, but that was before I saw the Essex Snake. Based on the 2016 novel by British writer Sarah Perry, the series directed by Cleo Barnard with Anna Simone as lead writer is the latest in an Apple TV+ adaptation. It is unfortunately also one of the weakest. Curvy, heavy, and stress-free, “The Essex Serpent” is in desperate need of a little more bite.
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“The Essex Serpent” stars Claire Dance as Cora Seaborn, a wealthy widow, mother, and natural hobbyist in 19th century England who travels to the small, humid county of Essex, after rumors of seeing a snake. Cora brings up her young son (Caspar Griffiths) and her lady’s mate, perhaps more so than her companion, Martha (Hayley Squires), leaving behind a young doctor, Luke Garrett (Frank Dylan), who becomes smitten with her after the death of her older husband. . In the English countryside, a group of frightened and superstitious villagers discover, convinced that a giant python – like Nessie but for the swamps – has risen from muddy waterways and dragged a missing little girl.
The girl appears to have been called a serpent after one of the rituals at the beginning of “The Essex Serpent”. It’s a mysterious, mysterious beginning. Unfortunately, it doesn’t set the tone for the rest of the show, whose struggle, like a mythical serpent, occasionally drifts near the surface, promising substantive cues that never materialize.
In Essex, Cora also discovers the local priest, Will Ransom (Tom Hiddleston), whose wife Saint Stella (Clemence Boise in a sweetly strong performance) resembles Cora and her daughter (Dixie Igrex) is the best friends of Sister (Lily-Rose Aslandogdu) of the missing girl. He will try to pacify the villagers by insisting that the snake is not real. He and Cora are heads up like Fox Mulder, you want to believe. Her theory is that the snake is a living fossil, a type of plesiosaur. She strongly believes in moving her young family to the seaside village of Aldwinter. She continues to run to Will, who wears his long scarves and thick knits and is frustrated by Cora’s stubbornness. Together they rescue a sheep stuck in the mud and matter progress. not far.
If you were expecting “The Thorn Birds” but with a dinosaur, you will be disappointed. The plot twists and curves like water, never leads anywhere quite as mysterious and full of weeds. One criticism of the source material was that the novel contained too many ideas, something that resonates in the show as the reflections swirl around but never come together. Martha is a Marxist committed to social change. Luke has ambitious plans for radical surgery, and is always on the lookout for potential patients. They both adore Cora – everyone is in love with Cora, for some reason – who survived a terribly abusive marriage, seen only in brief sadistic flashbacks.
The Danes and Hiddleston both look drained, as silent as the landscape, and the chemistry between them is less believable than the Loch Ness monster.
This is a lot and, oddly enough, not enough. The subplots weren’t given the time they needed and they all feel visibly hollow and fragile as Chinese Korra crashes into a bizarre montage that cuts out scenes of her wrath, Will praying, Luke’s injury, and the creature spinning in the dark all together, like the strangest Gray Anatomy episode ever ending. (which Scripps utterly mocks.)
Part of the problem here is that most of the characters aren’t given enough backbone to feel real. Luke is rash and self-centered, his attention to Cora bordering on creepy, making Dillane’s sarcastic lines fall nicely. Jamal Westman is a standout but his character, Dr. George Spencer, doesn’t have much to do. The Danes and Hiddleston both look drained, as silent as the landscape, and the chemistry between them is less believable than the Loch Ness monster.
The best elements of “The Essex Serpent” seem to be out of date. Squires takes on the role of potential bisexual Martha, who sleeps in the same bed as Cora and emphatically declares that she wants more of their relationship. Several reviews of the novel described Ibn Kora as suffering from the autism spectrum, a disability that would “be seen in the nineteenth century.” [as] (Slightly eccentric and not prone to emotion). Some of the most powerful scenes in the show show the talented Griffiths as a budding naturalist, interacting with the world with earnest curiosity. He befriends Stella, and there’s an emotional scene of the two of them lining a wooden boat with blankets and trinkets as bidding farewell to Lady Shalott.
Tuned as a corset, “The Essex Serpent” doesn’t want us to tease ourselves.
Visually, The Essex Serpent looks fantastic but subdued, as if it was shot mostly on an overcast evening. It often appears that twilight is in Aldwinter. Stella wears a pretty blue, almost in sharp contrast to Cora’s dark gray. The silent scene echoes the flat story. It just doesn’t go far enough.
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It’s strange to tell a story with a mythical serpent, accusations of witchcraft and a sacrificed goat is very subtle, but so is the “Essex Serpent.” Elements of the supernatural, the frightening, and the just plain intriguing are few and far between. The myth of a seagull flying into the house, and mass hallucinations that may be caused by a panic attack are not traced back to or allow any tension to develop.
The 19th century is a rich place, especially when it comes to scientific discovery (and thanks to Mary Shelley, the burgeoning genre of science fiction) but the show doesn’t take advantage of that or give much in the way of animation for the aspiring scientist. Chained as a corset, it’s as if “The Essex Serpent” doesn’t want us to excite ourselves or get any ideas other than the ones we design for us. This is a shame.
The first two episodes of “The Essex Serpent” are now streaming on Apple TV+ with new episodes coming out Friday. Watch a trailer below, via YouTube.
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