A Victorian widow searches for 'The Essex Serpent' in dark Apple TV+ drama
Cora Seaborne is a woman who escaped one monster and is pursuing another.
As played by Claire Danes in the six-episode drama "The Essex Serpent," premiering Friday, May 13, on Apple TV+, she's a 19th-century socialite who departs London following the death of her abusive husband to pursue her passion for natural history in the rural wilds of Essex, much to the disappointment of Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane), a hotshot surgeon who has the hots for her.
There, in what best friend and traveling companion Martha (Hayley Squires) calls "witch-burning country," Cora investigates reports of a sea monster that, according to legend, has claimed a few victims. On one jaunt, she crosses paths with Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston), the local vicar, with whom she has a mutual attraction. This man of the cloth takes the newcomer into his home with wife Stella (Clemence Poesy) and his family. But when tragedy strikes, the locals accuse Cora of attracting the creature.
The series, which is based on the eponymous novel by Sarah Perry, was actually filmed in Essex, northeast of London, where the foreboding marshy landscape set the tone for the darkness of the story, which executive producer Jamie Laurenson believes has relevance today.
"Though it's set in the Victorian era," he explains, "it's an incredibly timely story about a community confronted by fear and superstition. And it sort of talks about science and religion in ways that felt incredibly contemporary in spite of its period setting. And I think everything we've gone through in the last couple of years with COVID and all our various communities being turned on their heads by something that we didn't understand, and it was out of our control (made) the story of 'The Essex Serpent' feel more timely and more relatable."
"The Essex Serpent" didn't escape the effects of the pandemic, either. Production was delayed when Keira Knightley, the original Cora, dropped out due to COVID-related child-care concerns. Danes signed on, and her accent so impressed Laurenson that it had him wondering if she was really a Brit.
"The first thing is just how astonishing she is as a kind of chameleon," he says. "But also, I think what's wonderful about Cora as a character, and what I think Claire has really brilliantly captured, is this woman who has suffered and lived through a traumatic relationship and is emerging from that to discover and define herself outside of that experience.
"And I think Claire has done an amazing job of portraying the strength and sense of purpose that Cora has and that Sarah Perry writes about so well, as well as the kind of vulnerability and openness to change ... I think that's a rare gift to be able to carry those two qualities through a performance."