A gripping, based-on truth drama, The Serpent is a dark, challenging exploration of French/Vietnamese serial killer Charles Sobhraj (an unnerving Tahar Rahim) who operated out of Bangkok in the 1970s. Spread over eight episodes, the Netflix original is an extraordinary product of time and place, the so-called hippie trail of peace and love of Thailand, Nepal, Afghanistan, India and the like. But accompanying the laidback, drug infused lifestyle is suspicion of these western tourists, contempt by authorities, an underlying corruption and continued colonialism.
Preying on these naive, idealistic backpackers, the charming, debonair Sobhraj, seemingly willing to help those in difficulty, defrauded, robbed and murdered, aided by his girlfriend Marie-Andrée Leclerc (Jenna Coleman) and so-called ‘brother’, Ajay (Amesh Edireweera). The trio lived in relative comfort in a Bangkok apartment, ostensibly trading in gems, constantly travelling in the region (and on the passports of their victims). Surrounded by people, Sobhraj and Marie-Andrée were the centre of seeming generosity as travellers stayed a few days before officially moving on.
And so it continued until a new, young Third Secretary arrived at the Dutch Embassy. Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle) was determined to find out what happened to two missing Dutch travellers in spite of opposition to his Ambassador. With victims seen as low-life alternatives by many, disappearances were dismissed (border crossings were non-digitised for example and movement reliant on a paper trail of exit/entry forms). Knippenberg refused to drop the case and what became a total obsession forms the basis of the tracking down of evidence against Sobhraj.
It’s an extraordinary and engaging story, at times gripping. But it’s not without its flaws – including the casting of Knippenberg, Leclerc (a Quebecois) and a former Belgian diplomat with British actors. Reasoning is not clear. Spread over eight episodes, in spite of the thrill of the chase, the narrative palls in the middle as more of the same unfolds. It’s only when the action shifts from Bangkok to Paris and Nepal is The Serpent re-energised. But possibly most puzzling is the lack of depth in any exploration in the psychology of such a sociopath. It’s touched upon but merely surface, reflected by Tahar Rahim’s somewhat two-dimensional performance that varies little from the first to the last episode.