May 30, 2022

Television

Snake charmer: ‘The Essex Serpent’

By Craig Mathieson
Image of Claire Danes in The Essex Serpent. Image via Apple TV+

Claire Danes in The Essex Serpent. Image via Apple TV+

Claire Danes is electric in this atmospheric period drama, topping this month’s streaming highlights

“Livewire” is usually a throwaway compliment for an actor, but in the case of Claire Danes it is both accurate and laudatory: the American star performs with a charge that suggests an open current, a pulsing energy that crackles with the character’s intent. In Homeland, the post–September 11 espionage thriller where for almost a decade Danes played a brilliant CIA agent with bipolar disorder, it made for a self-destructive intensity. But in The Essex Serpent, a new period drama on Apple TV+, Danes defines the role of the newly widowed Cora Seaborne with intellectual rigour, romantic stirrings and an explorer’s passion. As a woman embracing her second chance, Danes is magnetic on the screen.

Adapted from the 2016 novel of the same name by Sarah Perry, The Essex Serpent is rich in 19th-century conflict and heated imagery. “It was the serpent that tempted me,” are the first words spoken, by a woman clutching a crucifix who soon after is missing in the fogbound Essex salt marshes. As a natural historian freed from a domineering husband, Cora arrives to investigate tales of a mythical serpent. She quotes Darwin while hunting for evidence, but her scientific rigour comes up against the religious fearfulness of the local community. Caught in between is the local priest, Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston), a firewall against the xenophobic villagers and a romantic contender for Cora, as is a London doctor, Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane), who shares Cora’s yen for discovery.

In many ways, The Essex Serpent is a quintessential 2022 streaming series: Hollywood stars, literary roots, impeccable production design and the plot of an independent movie stretched out over six episodes. The show is twisty and atmospheric, with the direction of independent filmmaker Clio Barnard (Dark River) closely attuned to the mysteries of face and landscape. It is accomplished, but part of that simply stems from the vivid depths of Danes’s performance. Both Homeland and My So-Called Life – the now revered 1994 study of America teenage mores that Danes starred in when she was just 15 years old – are streaming on Disney+, providing a summation of her first quarter-century in front of the television camera. The Essex Serpent suggests the next 25 years for Claire Danes could be even more rewarding.

Following on from 2020’s Normal People (Stan), Conversations with Friends (Amazon) is the second adaptation of a Sally Rooney novel. While the author didn’t work on this adaptation, several members of the Normal People team return, including lead director Lenny Abrahamson. The setting is once more Dublin, with university life as a backdrop and economic inequality looming, but the cloistered longing of the first limited series isn’t duplicated here. In telling the tale of how two former lovers, students Frances (Alison Oliver) and the American-born Bobbi (Sasha Lane), become entangled with thirtysomething writer Melissa (Jemima Kirke) and her actor husband, Nick (Joe Alwyn), there’s a study of infidelity and unspoken need that tries to match the coolly evaluative tone of Rooney’s prose. The half-hour episodes are quietly urgent, and the best are vital.

Obi-Wan Kenobi (Disney+) is the Star Wars franchise breaking the emergency glass after the last movie trilogy petered out with 2019’s The Rise of Skywalker and the streaming spin-offs made a mess of The Book of Boba Fett. Ewan McGregor returns in the title role, now a mournful exile marooned on Tatooine, watching over a young Luke Skywalker in the narrative middle ground between George Lucas’s wretched prequels and the original Star Wars movie (where Alec Guinness played the role of Obi-Wan). McGregor gave the only accomplished performance in the prequels, and that continues here as the Jedi Master is thrown between self-recrimination and sardonic banter, struggling to avoid those hunting him while bonding with a cute offsider. But, two episodes in, it’s apparent that Star Wars will not – or cannot – step back from trying to simultaneously satisfy every corner of its fandom.

In brief: The fourth season of Stranger Things (Netflix) finds the hit supernatural adventure trying to rediscover its 1980s horror roots after the previous season spent too long, both literally and figuratively, in the mall. It starts woefully slowly, but by the third episode the familiar giddy adolescent momentum is in play. Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber (Paramount+) is both a celebration and condemnation of hard-charging Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a driven Silicon Valley disruptor who crossed lines his backers couldn’t believe he’d even approach. As a study of start-up excess it’s a sympathetic take-down – the writing and direction possess a similar energy to Kalanick’s. Lastly, The Wire creator David Simon’s We Own This City (Binge) is a riveting study of real-life police corruption in his Baltimore stomping grounds. Revealing granular detail and a stark warning, it is one of the year’s best series to date.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.

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