Oysters and fishing boats, mist and marshland: Colchester is 50 miles northeast of London and was considered unattractive, cold and provincial in Victorian England.
The six-part mini-series “The Essex Serpent” follows a wealthy widow from London who moves to Essex for months in 1893 – first to Colchester, then to the nearby (and fictional) village of Aldwinter.
Is a Plesiosaurus a threat to fishermen and children?
A sea snake was sighted there. A Darwin reader and amateur paleontologist, Cora Seaborne searches for fossils and bones. And after a living Plesiosaurus that survived in the North Sea – and today threatens fishermen and their children?
Sarah Perry’s historical novel “The Essex Serpent” was published in 2017. The flowery language, the flowery cover picture and Perry’s desire to play with romance clichés, to break them or live up to them, made the book a bestseller.
The Apple TV+ film adaptation stars Tom Hiddleston (“Loki”) as village vicar and family man Will, and Frank Dillane (“Fear the Walking Dead”) in a surprisingly complex role as London surgeon Luke.
Contrite and abusive men
Both men are contrite, abusive, lovesick and, would this all be set in 2022, always on the verge of posting online: “The arrogant widow just wants friendship?! Cora put me in the friendzone. Nasty chicken!”
That was already the intention of author Perry: “Victorians were modern people,” she says of the period 1837 to 1901, when Queen Victoria reigned. Science, industrialization, slums and the will to progress are major themes in the book and series. And while the village braces itself against the sea serpent in an increasingly irrational, superstitious and silly way, completely different, more worldly secondary characters and themes become increasingly important: the socialist (and lesbian?) Martha and her fight for social housing, Cora’s eleven-year-old son, who lives in seems introverted and a little removed in the series, but serves bad autism clichés in the novel. And most exciting: Cora’s personal self-realization and the question of whether her money, her enthusiasm and her hunger for life do more harm than good.
Twists that often seem thrown out
Claire Danes (“Homeland”) plays Cora as an imposing, fickle woman who experienced violence in her marriage and will never again submit to anything – no god, no convention. An award-worthy, never one-dimensional representation in an often surprising network of characters that carries six episodes well.
Despite this, almost no one can be satisfied with this series. Anyone who likes monsters (or is looking for at least two or three coherent theses and images as to why the irrational and supernatural was so central in Victorian England) will see less and less from episode to episode.
Anyone looking forward to great feelings and romance will find twists and turns, solutions and misunderstandings that often seem to have been thrown out: very surprising, but loveless, arbitrary. Where Mulder and Scully argued about science and faith for years on “The X-Files,” Parson Will has nothing deeper to say.
Claire Danes throws everyone against the wall
There are villages and London slums, surgeons and vicars, a widow and sightings of a creature in the water in the series – but without any deeper reference, connection or interesting dynamic: Martha could be a lesbian, Cora’s son is probably autistic. Claire Danes throws everyone against the wall.
Six episodes, that’s enough time to build as surprising, atmospheric individual scenes as possible from a rather unsuccessful book template and its many ill-considered, loveless elements. But the overall picture? Like a path that meanders lively at first. Then more and more haphazard twitches. And ends up going nowhere.
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