TV: The Essex Serpent offers a contemporary take on love and friendship
The series is set at a specific time in history, but its themes are universal and timeless, its stars and writers tell Gemma Dunn.
The Essex Serpent may be set in the 19th century, but it reads like a modern-day drama.
Adapted from the best-selling novel by Sarah Perry, the six-part limited series – exclusive to Apple TV+ – follows Cora, a widow who moves from London to a small village in Essex intrigued by the idea that she might be haunted by a mythological sea serpent.
Cue a clash between science and religion as the avid naturalist (played by Golden Globe winner Claire Danes) meets her match in village vicar Will (Tom Hiddleston), with whom she forms an unlikely bond.
“I’ve worked on quite a few period dramas and this one is different in that it’s incredibly contemporary in its take on love and friendship,” screenwriter Anna Symon offers about radical history.
“It doesn’t feel like it’s set in Victorian England and it doesn’t feel like some constrained buttoned-up drama. It’s exuberant, liberating and incredibly fresh.
“Although Cora Seaborne was a Victorian woman, in many ways the challenges she faced during that time still exist for women today. We see a woman struggling to find her place as a widow, wife and mother.”
It was an intentional move by Perry, who maintains his position that “historical novels aren’t about the past, they’re about the present.”
“Choosing to be in the 19th century was a philosophical choice because I was never interested in the differences of the past, but in the similarities, and in the idea that they were not different from us in their desires, their fears and their sense of humor,” she says.
“I thought if I wrote a novel set in the 19th century showing it as a contemporary time with heaters, anesthesia, socialism and feminism, it would be exciting for readers.”
It certainly ticked the boxes for the Homeland Danes actor, 43, who says he “inhaled” the book after receiving it from her husband, actor Hugh Dancy, a few years earlier.
“The environment is so evocative and an extension of the characters’ inner lives,” she muses, referring to the windswept landscapes of Essex. “Anna has done a wonderful job of achieving this, visually. It’s this very intense, exciting story.
“I immediately got lost in it, so when it happened, I was thrilled to inhabit this story and learn more about Cora from the inside.”
For Hiddleston, 41, the historical saga – directed by Ali & Ava’s Clio Barnard – was brand new territory.
“I read it very quickly as soon as I read the script, and absolutely loved it,” the Loki star coos. “It’s so atmospheric and it’s so beautifully written. The prose is so elegant, so evocative and it was a gift to us.
“When it comes to the snake, I love that the story works on so many levels,” he continues. “There’s something in the water and we don’t know what it is – or there seems to be – and it’s immediately thrilling as a mystery.
“Yet it’s also a symbol of something beneath the surface, things we don’t yet know or understand. Ideas, feelings or instincts.
“There is something in ancient myths that attracts. We are always intrigued by these old folk tales; they have a hold on our imagination in a very powerful way.
He’s not wrong. One of the key themes of The Essex Serpent, states Perry, is “the conflict between faith and reason, and the fear of things we cannot predict or understand”.
“The novel and the series examine this idea through different lenses,” she teases.
While the stranger Cora wants to understand the nature of the so-called serpent and what is behind the mysterious events, Will, on the other hand, has faith and community at the center of his life and believes, to some extent, that science induces those with wild imaginations.
“Cora and Will have respectful and playful company in their debates about this, and within that company arises a deep admiration and affection for each other and a latent and growing passion, which unsettles them both,” shares Hiddleston, born in London. .
“Cora’s arrival in Aldwinter disrupts the whole community, from Will and his family to school children. It disrupts the way local villagers put down roots in their lives.”
Yet despite their opposition, they are clearly attracted to each other, he reasons.
“They so clearly respect each other and what the other believes. Will, as a man of faith, also understands the power of intellectual reason; and Cora, as a person invested in science, also realizes that everything in his life cannot be explained by rational judgment alone.
“There is an act of faith, perhaps an act of the heart, which must ultimately be done,” he concludes.
“They both have a real natural curiosity,” adds the Danish New Yorker. “They’re immediate friends and they have this great relationship that they’ve blown away that they’ve never met before. I think they’re taken by surprise.”
As for drawing parallels, the fear of the unknown married to a desire to explain the unexplained speaks to contemporary society, the couple explain.
“We’ve had to deal with so much uncertainty recently and it’s not easy,” Hiddleston said. “And trying to hold on to something, to hold on to what’s good and to hold on to some comfort is almost a practice.
“We all need to stick together. I realize it’s very difficult to be isolated. As human beings, we can’t do this alone. We need each other. ( There is) a sense that we fear what we don’t fully understand.And sometimes it takes a little care and thought to dispel that fear and empower those who don’t yet fully understand.
“I was really struck by the line you (Hiddleston) have, where you say, ‘Fear is where God lives,'” Danes recalled, addressing his co-star. “That really rang true. It’s particularly resonant and a helpful thought.”
Joining the duo is Harry Potter star Clemence Poesy as Will Stella’s wife, Frank Dillane as Dr Garrett, Hayley Squires as Martha and Jamael Westman as Dr Spencer.
Reflecting on the journey from script to screen, Symon says his hope is that viewers “just fall in love with him in his own right”.
“I hope the two things exist together as companions,” Perry concludes.
“That the novel is different from the series and the series is different from the novel, and that they can exist together in this beautiful symbiosis, influencing and amplifying each other.”
The Essex Serpent will launch on Apple TV+ on Friday.