Following its Oscars glory with Coda, the enduring popularity of comedy Ted Lasso and recent successes including Severance, Apple TV Plus now enters the prestige period drama sphere with this lush and atmospheric adaptation of Sarah Perry’s best-selling novel The Essex Serpent, led by Tom Hiddleston and Claire Danes.
London widow Cora Seaborne (Danes) relocates to Essex in the 1890s with her companion Martha (Hayley Squires) and young son Frankie, after taking a keen interest in amateur palaeontology and hearing reports of a mythical serpent in the area that she is keen to investigate.
Following an awkward arrival, she forms an unlikely bond with local vicar Will Ransome (Hiddleston) and his family, but her new-found stability and happiness is threatened when locals accuse her of attracting the beast after the village faces tragedy.
Bafta-nominated director Clio Barnard (Ali & Ava) goes full tilt at the story’s gothic trappings, combining moody, sweeping shots of mist-filled marshes with emotionally-fuelled close-ups of its attractively turned-out, angst-ridden cast as they attempt to tackle their feelings.
As well as Will, ambitious surgeon Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane) is pulled into Cora’s alluring orbit, bringing his junior medical colleague and friend George Spencer (Jamael Westman) with him, who himself harbours feelings for Martha while she remains enthralled by Cora.
The secondary plot involving medical research advances during the late Victorian era provides intriguing context – and contrast – for the religious and superstitious panic in Aldwinter’s folk, with some alterations made to smooth out the complicated dynamics a little more neatly for the screen.
This is also the case with screenwriter Anna Symon (Mrs Wilson) inserting additional scenes to help move the plot forward in a more dynamic way for TV than the novel’s reliance on letter writing.
What makes The Essex Serpent most compelling, alongside its eminently watchable, star-studded cast and gorgeous costumes – from sumptuous, high-necked gowns to greatcoats and woollen jumpers – is its expert study of the uglier, juicier side of humanity.
This is no study in Victorian virtue: Perry’s resonant characterisation of flawed trail-blazers is brought to life in nuanced performances by Danes as the slightly brittle and selfish Cora, as well as Hiddleston’s radical but frustrated Reverend.
The pair are well-matched with their acting chops, and spark satisfyingly sexy chemistry, while New York-born Danes also produces a very convincing English accent.
Will’s wife Stella is an ethereal but warm presence brought to life by Clémence Poésy as the piece’s most sympathetic player, while Squires continues to impress after performances in I, Daniel Blake and Adult Material as complicated socialist Martha.
The whole cast of characters is ahead of their time and far from perfect, but this is encapsulated most deftly by Dillane, who is an energetic and magnetic presence as Luke, even when at his most obnoxious and destructive.
There’s also a mini-Hamilton reunion for theatre fans with Westman, who originated the title role in London’s production, joined by Michael Jibson, who was the West End’s first King George III, as Will’s fanatical curate.
Divided into six 50-ish minute episodes, the mini-series generally keeps up a fair pace throughout, although it does occasionally lag with a little over-indulgence on some of the villagers’ responses to the serpent.
Having said that, glimpses of the beast and fragments of its fable are kept tantalisingly vague but just solid enough to fan the flames of viewers’ curiosity.
The same can be said for the show’s steamier scenes, which definitely reflect the overall earthy feeling of The Essex Serpent and its less-than-repressed characters.
The Essex Serpent might not be something entirely unseen before in period drama fare, but with its commanding cast, intriguing premise and well-considered scientific and social context, it will certainly sweep viewers along with its story.
The first two episodes of The Essex Serpent are available to watch on Apple TV Plus from Friday May 13, with further episodes releasing weekly on Friday.