The year is 1893. A young London woman, Cora Seaborne, recently widowed, reads a story in a newspaper about a supposed “Essex Serpent” that allegedly is set upon killing the female population of the town of Essex. She is intrigued. Not only is she an amateur biologist and paleontologist, but in pursuing this mystery she finally feels free from the clutches of her abusive dead husband who regularly used her body as the object of his sadistic fetishes.
Cora is wealthy, and employs Martha, a nanny for her rather odd son, Frankie. Martha is strangely possessive of Cora, but Cora seems oblivious to the woman’s behavior. Out of pure interest and a need to leave the oppressiveness of the house she has been calling home for the last few years, Cora packs her bags and heads to London, with Frankie and Martha in tow.
Such is the premise and beginning of a new adventure in the series, “The Essex Serpent,” now streaming on AppleTV+. The series is based on an eponymous book by Sarah Perry, and it stars Claire Danes as Cora Seaborne and Tom Hiddleston as Will Ransome, the Essex pastor, who at the beginning is the biggest obstacle to Cora’s scientific explorations. He is a man of faith, who is meant to clash with Cora’s rational and scientific spirit. He also represents a religious and social world of patriarchy, which adds to the tension between the two.
Since it’s based on a book, the series has many of the elements of a gothic romance novel, a tradition that goes back to the 18th century. There is a supernatural and superstitious element (the serpent), the tension between science and religion (especially apparent in the Victorian era), a beautiful woman, and her relationship with a dark, handsome man. In most of these stories, the female protagonist is both repelled by and attracted to the man, who is spiritually often a monster, and the two sides of pain and pleasure intertwine, often resulting in tragedy. (Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights being two of the most obvious literary examples.)
“The Essex Serpent” starts out strongly. It’s beautifully filmed, especially the scenes where we see the looming landscape of the water and the marsh. The dirtiness and muddiness of the roads only adds to the heaviness the characters feel about their lives. The scenes between Cora and Will that indicate passionate closeness are beautifully tempered and restrained. But as the story is unraveling, it becomes apparent that director Clio Barnard had a different vision in mind than keeping in line with the tradition of gothic fiction.
In most gothic romances, the characters are mysterious. We’re not sure if they are good or evil, and the line is often blurred. They are psychologically complex, and the idea of transgression (be it social or religious) is part of the genre, as is its inherent eroticism. This is what makes such stories pulsate with life. But “The Essex Serpent” chooses a path of mostly detached social commentary rather than an exploration of the characters’ interior lives.
Unfortunately, this is often the case with current films and television series. The production is well done, but the writers insist on cramming in anachronistic social and political commentary. It’s awkward and distracts greatly from the story. In this case (spoiler alert), it turns out Martha the nanny is both a lesbian and a communist! She is marginalized by Victorian society, which would be historically accurate if it were actually imaginable, but the producers in this case present this plot development with such clumsiness that Martha just becomes a vessel for an ideology.
(In contrast, we think of Mrs. Danvers, a housekeeper in Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca,” whose obsession with the great mistress of the house, Rebecca, most definitely could be seen as bordering on lesbianism but the very ambiguity of the relationship gifts the reader with yet another element of mystery, which adds so much more to the story and the reader’s imagination.)
Certainly, women had fewer rights in the past, and misogynists and chauvinists could make life difficult for them. But once again, such social relation is presented two-dimensionally, as are most of the characters. The aspect that suffers the most is the relationship between Cora and Will. They are almost immediately attracted to each other. Unfortunately, Will is married, but this is part of the transgression we often find in a gothic romance.
They are both aware of this tension, and there is a great build-up to the inevitable carnal act, but when it arrives it is empty and drained of all eroticism. One might as well speak of it in clinical terms: the coitus was brief and perfunctory (cue David Attenborough of “Nature” series fame for the narration). It was as if the producers were afraid of an erotic embrace between a man and a woman, as if they are aliens making a film and know nothing about the possibility of sexual passion that exists between men and woman. Thus the series reaches a rather weak, er . . . climax.
Hiddleston’s great talent as an actor is mostly wasted in this role. He was perfectly cast (as was Claire Danes), especially given his attractive looks that often align with the dark and brooding Victorian man who is both a passionate lover and a monster, or a man caught between the two worlds of moral propriety and sexual transgression. But here, Hiddleston is not allowed to realize the conflict between what is morally proper and what is transgressive. His erotic passion and belief in God are barely touched. Instead, we get a ham-fisted script that appears written by activists intent on pushing an agenda rather than artists telling a story. It fails on both accounts.
A problem for the writers is that one of the most central aspects of gothic romance is the very idea of femininity and masculinity and the tension between the two. These great differences are the source of the tension, as well as plenty of the incidental mystery that makes these stories work. This is especially true when the two opposites enter into an uneasy relationship. Although there are many aesthetically beautiful images in the series that deserve praise, “The Essex Serpent” manages to evade the mystery of the relationship between man and woman and thus falls flat. Given the degree to which true eros is missing from culture today, however, it is hardly surprising the shows made such a disappointing choice.