There is something personal and universal about stories set in a small town or village. If you have lived your whole life in a close-knit locale, you can identify with those people in that movie or show and easily relate to the pros and cons of it. In terms of universality, these close-knit locales are often a microcosm of the various shades of society that can be witnessed globally. Hence, you can deduce a lot of commentaries about humanity, religion, and family, i.e., the most commonly observed aspects of our lives. However, if your observations are either surface-level or unfocused, you can have the best actors, the best visuals, the best sound, period-accurate production design, and more, and yet it can end up amounting to nothing. And, with a heavy heart, I have to say that the Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston-led miniseries, “The Essex Serpent,” is symptomatic of that.
Directed by Clio Barnard, written by Anna Symon, and based on the novel of the same name by Sarah Perry, “The Essex Serpent” opens with the mysterious vanishing of Gracie (Rebecca Ineson) after she and her sister Naomi (Lily-Rose Aslandogdu) perform some ritual. In London, recently widowed Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes) follows her passion for finding fossils by moving to Essex, along with her assistant Martha (Hayley Squires) and son Frankie (Caspar Griffiths), and go searching for a mythical serpent. That’s where she befriends the village vicar, Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston), who is married to Stella (Clémence Poésy) and has two kids, Jo (Dixie Egerickx) and John (Ryan Reffell). But as the increase in tragedies in the village starts to coincide with Cora’s consistent flagrancy regarding the village’s customs, the curate Matthew (Michael Jibson) accuses Cora of attracting this mythical serpent and wreaking havoc. Amidst all this, there’s a love triangle with Dr. Luke (Frank Dillane) and a subplot about Communism.
When a miniseries is good, it leaves you with the feeling that a season 2 would’ve been great. But since there won’t be a season 2, it makes you respect the self-contained, focused storytelling and the lack of greediness to extend a story for the sake of extending it. When a miniseries is bad, you wish it was just a movie. The latter of those two is the sentiment that’s synonymous with “The Essex Serpent.” Barnard and Symon pick up topics like marital abuse, extramarital affairs, myth, religion, collective paranoia, bisexuality (which can easily count as queer-baiting), poverty, classism, and medicinal discoveries and put them in wet, grimey aesthetics. And they deal with them in the most repetitive, mundane way ever. Every episode has this faux crescendo that tells you something big is going to happen, and then nothing substantial actually happens. The narrative reverts back to the love triangles and love quadrangles and how the villagers believe that the women involved are the real problem.
The frustrating part about the storytelling is that its unfocused nature hampers every technical aspect of the miniseries. David Raedeker’s haunting cinematography, Lucia Zucchetti’s editing, Alice Normington’s production design, Dustin O’Halloran and Herdís Stefánsdóttir’s music, Thalia Ecclestone and Caroline Barclay’s art direction, Lucy Eyre’s set decoration, Jane Petrie’s costume design, the work by the hair and make-up department, everything is fantastic. The brooding, briney nature of the village is very palpable. The shifting between the shallow focus shots of Hiddleston and Danes’s faces and the wider landscape shots visually represents the blend of intimacy and universality I mentioned earlier. The constant droning score lets the depression of the village folks seep into you. But then it keeps looking away from its central protagonists to, well, everything happening with Luke, Martha, and the people in London, and ruins it all. And that, of course, undermines Cora and Will’s plot and makes some of their most revelatory moments seem cheap and unearned.
Tom Hiddleston and Claire Danes are undoubtedly excellent. I mean, are you really expecting them to give bad performances at this point in their career? Come on! Danes portrays every shade of anxiety, trauma, hypocrisy, love, care, and a genuine passion towards shining some light on the unknown with utmost sincerity. Hiddleston is the polar opposite of it as every single emotion of his is more muted as his character is supposed to be a voice of reason. When they collide, you get to see the levels of their performances change a bit, with Danes getting calmer and Hiddleston getting more expressive, thereby demonstrating how their characters are rubbing off on each other. The supporting cast, which is mainly made up of Squires, Griffiths, Poésy, Jibson, Dillane, and Aslandogdu, and features many other talented actors, forms the backbone of the show. Yes, even though their respective arcs are sometimes detrimental to the story, their solo performances and interactive scenes with Danes and Hiddleston are undeniably brilliant.
Yes, the serpent of Essex in “The Essex Serpent” is a metaphor for the personal and universal issues plaguing the characters and humanity in general. I don’t think anyone is going into the series expecting a giant serpent to come out of the marshes and get into a battle with Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston. But when the handling of the literal issues is flaky and lacking in-depth, the metaphor doesn’t hold up all that well. And in a situation like this, it seems like a literal serpent coming out of the marshes to battle Claire Danes, and Tom Hiddleston would’ve been a better idea. Most of the time, bad storytelling and execution don’t really keep one up at night. However, when a miniseries with a stacked cast as this and a room for attacking religion, morality, and the essence of humanity as this, it pricks. So, is it worth a watch? Yes. Watch it for Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston, and the amazing performances from the supporting cast. Maybe you’ll find other aspects to appreciate in the process.
“The Essex Serpent” is a 2022 Period Drama Miniseries directed by Clio Barnard.