‘The Essex Serpent’: A magical series about science, myth and desire


Sarah Perry won popular favor and the 2016 British Book Award with ‘The Essex Serpent’complex but irresistibly accessible novel about a young London widow, Cora Seaborne, determined to release the energy held during an oppressive marriage and pursue her passions as an amateur naturalist and paleontologist. His particular Moby Dick is the (real) titular myth of the 17th century, which in the novel could have resurfaced two centuries later in Aldwinter, an (imagined) Essex village.

the new yorker Claire Danes (popular heroine of ‘Homeland’) practiced her best English accent to embody Cora in the Apple TV+ adaptation, another pristine series to add to the platform’s 2022 harvest. Beside her shines Tom Hiddleston as the local vicar, the handsome Will Ransome, with whom our heroine engages in a kind of intellectual flirtation with possibilities for more physical expansion. Relationships and desires are not always clearly outlined in the story, much less from the start. For example, Martha (Hayley Squires), nanny to Cora’s autistic son, Frankie (Caspar Griffiths), protects Cora to excess, or even platonic. ‘The Essex Serpent’ speaks of the clash between science and superstition of the Victorian era, but also of the confusion between romantic love and friendship.

Among many other things, we could add. For example, what interested the project director Clio Barnard It was “that reflection on how the landscape plays with our psyche,” he explains to us by video call. “Also about the need to learn to live with fear and uncertainty; doubt is important, and certainty, something too dogmatic. I liked how the novel and the screenplay explored those ideas.”

Leading English director

At the beginning of the last decade, Barnard began to earn a great reputation as an explorer of the tensions between documentary and fiction. Her first film was the revealing ‘The tree’ (2010), an experiment in which the actors made ‘playback’ of statements collected from real people in interviews. With it he won the Jean Vigo award for best direction at the Punto de Vista festival in Navarra. The rest of her work, without being so radical, is also firmly based on the feasible: “Usually I come up with an idea inspired by someone real and then I build the script through workshops with the people who inspired me”he says to summarize his most usual modus operandi.

‘The Essex Serpent’ is, never better said, a different beast. It represents many firsts for Barnard. To begin with, it is his first series, a format of which he is not a great consumer, but which he was curious about: “He wanted to know what it would be like to tell something in six hours instead of ninety minutes. And what it’s like to do something in chapters, with more characters and longer plots for each of them. A long time ago ‘The wire’ taught me how expectations of a character could be subverted by working with a wide time frame“. From somewhat more recent series, he stays with ‘Top of the lake’, “because [la directora] Jane Campion managed to bring out her voice in a recognizable series style.”

The great filmmaker Andrea Arnold, however, could not retain creative control of the second season of ‘Big little lies’. How was Barnard’s experience in this new, more industrial workspace? “I had to stick to some parameters, but within that framework, I had some freedom,” he explains. It was about finding a balance between the needs of the product and my concerns as a creator. Of course, it was something very different from what I usually do. I fought for certain things. Others I let go“.

more first times

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It wasn’t really such a frustrating experience either. Although it is not part, for the first time, of his script (the bulk of the adaptation was commissioned Anna Symon), he was able to mark some patterns by reviewing the writing of the first two chapters. And another first time was almost a blessing: I had never shot a period story, “something that was a challenge due to the dimension of the production and that led me to exercise new muscles as a director” .Barnard has definitely come out of his comfort zone, which is a bit the same as saying Yorkshire, where his four films take place, including the one awarded in Seville (for best screenplay) ‘The selfish giant’.

But the landscape of ‘The Essex Serpent’, that cold, raw, unceremonious nature, is not too far from what we could see in his 2017 film ‘Dark River’. “I think it looks like the scenery in all my movies. It is a visceral landscape, not an objective one; one that lives and breathes and impacts our psyches. Interestingly, right now I live on the east coast of Kent, which is a lot like the Blackwater Firth, so the landscape where Perry’s work takes place brings me back home. It’s what I see if I get to the end of the road.”


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