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There is surely an element in the brackish water of Essex’s coastal marshes that excites pagan remnants of the British imagination. End of 2020, The third day (still available on OCS) makes the island of Osea, in the Blackwater estuary, the still active home of a bloodthirsty and Celtic cult. A little further north, near Colchester, The Essex Serpent depicts the resurgence of ancestral fears, at the most rational moment in the history of the kingdom – the last years of Victoria’s reign.
However, the series that Anna Symon (screenplay) and Clio Barnard (director) have taken from Sarah Perry’s novel does not fall directly into the fantasy genre. Here, science and logic stand up to the irrational waves that carry away the inhabitants of Aldwinter, a small fishing village, who attribute the disappearance of a young girl to the reappearance of a bloodthirsty sea creature. Placed at the center of this confrontation, Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes) becomes the heroine of a fight fought on several fronts, since it is as much a question of making scientific positivism triumph as of escaping the unbearable expectations that society Victorian poses to women.
Reversal of romantic roles
The first sequences depict the widowhood of Cora Seaborne, which allows her to escape a violent husband, to get closer to a young and pretty surgeon (Frank Dillane) and to finally deliver herself to her passion, paleontology – the report of a sea monster makes him hope for the discovery of a species having escaped extinction, and to pack his bags for Essex. This program, which one might have feared would become didactic, unfolds without stiffness, punctuated by adventures borrowed from the romantic tradition of the time of the story, and a couple of actors – Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston – who seem delighted to escape one to her career as a manic-depressive secret agent (Country), the other to his status as a Norse god (Loki).
Hiddleston plays Reverend Will Ransome, charged with the tormented souls of Aldwinter. Intellectual exiled to the bottom of the marshes in the company of his wife Stella (Clémence Poésy), Ransome oscillates between two women (and the staging takes all the advantage that one could hope for from the proximity between Claire Danes and Clémence Poésy, so close and so distant), while Cora traces her path in defiance of propriety.
This inversion of amorous roles responds to a profusion of political or scientific aspirations. Cora Seaborne has a Marxist militant companion (the excellent Hayley Squires, discovered in I, Daniel Blake, of Ken Loach) while the young surgeon wants to revolutionize the practice of cardiology. The characters search for themselves in the sublime and desolate landscapes of the eastern coast of England, often masked by the mist. The staging by Clio Barnard (The Selfish Giant) patiently dissipates these banks of fog to describe the truth of each character, guiding these from the romantic logic of the XIXand century to the questions of our time, without ever forcing the line.
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