Newly freed from the hellish shackles of an abusive marriage, Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes) decides to reclaim her life and, as soon as rumors of a mysterious sea creature reach her, goes to Essex to investigate the exact nature of the reptile accompanied by her son and her servant Martha (Hayley Squires). On site, the young palaeontology enthusiast discovers with amazement largely highlighted by apotheotic aesthetics which benefits the series, the melancholy and picturesque beauty of the village of Alwinter, where she meets the vicar William Ransome (Tom Hiddleston) and his wife, Stella (Clémence Poésy).
A moving encounter for this man of faith, whose sudden desire contrasts amply with his religious morality. But let the poor fellow not throw stones at himself, the young woman obviously arousing an attraction to which no one seems able to survive. From the amiable Martha to the vicar, passing by the prodigal surgeon Luke Garett (Frank Dillane), Cora’s entourage thus seems, for no particular reason, trapped in her decidedly inexorable charm.
Let It Go
The interpersonal relationships shared by each of the characters therefore seem to be the real driving force behind The Essex Serpentwhich, despite a rhythm for the less effective, ultimately lacks a strong enough plot to support the narrative. Simultaneously gothic mystery, socio-realist drama, pseudo-feminist testament, and melodrama, The Essex Serpent struggles to establish an identity of its own. Far too many narrative frames are thus engaged and then abandoned without any other consideration than that of not overshadowing the unfolding, however uncertain, of a wobbly alchemy between the leading duo.
The spectator will therefore undoubtedly experience some difficulty in grasping the ins and outs of the irrepressible desire that the characters feel for each other, without too much preamble. Actors of an organic tension made from scratch by their performers respective (solid, but tasteless) and without real script supportWill and Cora thus develop a physical attraction for each other that makes it difficult to invest his audience, or even raise the slightest issue.
In the background of this clumsy romance, The Essex Serpent responds not without difficulty to a conflict opposing the religious faith embodied by Will, to the rationality represented by Cora. A dichotomy that is found initially through the characters, but also in the parallel editing used by the series, which depicts a narrative as well as a visual dualityand multiplies the flashbacks, leaps forward, and other temporal simultaneities between London and Alwinter.
The ideological dispute between the two main characters will, however, feed less a debate than an exchange. While Cora tries to understand the exact nature of the snake, and likes to imagine that it could be a “living fossil” that has escaped evolution, the pastor prefers to consider it as a manifestation of relative anxieties. to the inevitable changes of the times. Radically distinct views that will however push them to seek to learn from each other.
Talking about the meaning of life in the early morning
If Cora and Will manage to get along fairly quickly, the latter’s arrival in the small town of Alwinter nevertheless underlies a deep and irreconcilable disagreement between the character and the mores of the village. While Will tries somehow to contain the growing anxiety of his parishioners, the character of Claire Danes tries to open their narrow minds to other considerations, by offering to impart his scientific knowledge at the village school.
The latter will however be overtaken by the weight of inexhaustible superstitions, so anchored in the collective unconscious that they invest the bodies and cause a sudden general frenzy. Discernment clouded by a religious extremism and one blind conservatismthe villagers of Alwinter then refuse to listen to reason, convinced that the mythical snake has returned to the county to better feast on their sins.
Sweeter than this character, you die
Giving in to paranoia, the inhabitants of Alwinter seize wood, torches, and nets in order to build dams and barricades, as so many physical manifestations of their inner reluctance to consider the beast (and by extension, the unknown) as other one thing incarnation of the demon. The hysteria reaches its climax when one more corpse is discovered near the swamp. A maddened fever rages while Clio Barnard’s cinematographic device depicts through editing and convulsive staging the pangs of a mass neurosis, briefly appeased by the flow of blood from a sacrificial goat.
Simultaneously sea creature, divine punishment, and omnipresent entity, the beast terrifies children, invades the pews of the church, and seems to prowl dangerously under the surface of the misty waters of Essex. However, the snake seems to respond less to an abstract physicality than to a symbol, of a vast metaphor modeling in a single image all that is inevitable in life: regret, grief, mourning, and fear.
“Exile to the countryside, they said. It will be restful, they said.”
Mirror on which the characters project their own wounds, the serpent becomes the reflection of an elusive human conditionand implies in passing that despite the industrial revolution and the incredible progress made by Man, the latter is above all part of nature and remains a fortiori imperfect.
Thus, beneath the awkwardly romantic outbursts of the two protagonists, and the various sub-plots dismissed without too many scruples from the main narrative, The Essex Serpent can be considered as a ghost story. Ghosts created from scratch not for lack of faith, or knowledge, but by fears and doubts taking advantage of the troubled waters of the unknown to better insinuate themselves into hearts and minds.
After launching with two episodes on May 13, 2022, The Essex Serpent will unveil a new episode every Friday on Apple TV+