Inspired by real events, The Serpent tells the remarkable story of how the conman and murderer Charles Sobhraj (Tahar Rahim) was brought to justice. Posing as a gem dealer, Sobhraj and his girlfriend Marie-Andrée Leclerc (Jenna Coleman) travelled across Thailand, Nepal and India in 1975 and 1976, carrying out a spree of crimes on the Asian ‘Hippie Trail’ and becoming the chief suspects in a series of murders of young Western travellers.
As Sobhraj repeatedly slips from the grasp of authorities around the world, Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle), a junior diplomat at the Dutch Embassy in Bangkok, unwittingly walks into his intricate web of crime. Knippenberg sets off an extraordinary chain of events that will see Sobhraj become Interpol’s most wanted man, with arrest warrants in multiple continents.
To do a drama about a serial killer can be tricky. It’s important that those behind the scenes don’t glorify murder or represent said killer in anything other than an honest portrayal of their own narcissistic hatred of others. However, audiences tend to enjoy these kinds of dramas and indeed in the last few years there have been several excellent ones produced – Des which aired last year on ITV; Mindhunter on Netflix and American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace to name but a few.
What all these dramas do exceptionally well is to not only highlight the pathology of these killers but also help us to understand why and how they were caught. This is no exception and from its very first sequence, it will have any viewer gripped, not just by its intensity but by its honesty. It brilliantly portrays the effectiveness of Sobhraji’s smooth, intense charm and also the inertia of the various European embassies in South East Asia at the time.
The contrast between the rough and ready world that Sobhraji exists in, surrounded by the “hippies” derided by members of the consulates and the consulates themselves with their tennis parties and members-only clubs is an eloquent expression of the decay of European influence in Asia and how, as the 1970s progressed, many people in charge of administration were utterly alienated from the people they were meant to protect.
This allows the drama to highlight the clear distinction between Knippenberg and Sobhraji – they are opposite sides of the same coin. Sobhraji may be smoother and more at home with himself and his world but he is also better able to twist anyone he likes around his little finger. His charm is entirely artificial as he makes clear at the very end of the episode – he is detached from anything that he does and would kill you as soon as offer to buy you a drink. For Sobhraji, the two are interchangeable.
In contrast Knippenberg, whilst somewhat clumsy and not fully acclimatised to life at a major embassy, as demonstrated by his ill ease when dealing with other diplomats like members of the Belgium Embassy Siemons (Tim McInerny), is not only far more honest but understands the responsibility of his position. He values life whilst for Sobhraji, the lives of those he comes across are interchangeable and meaningless unless he can acquire something from them. This creates a fascinating dynamic that whilst not shown directly in the first episode, hints towards how the series will play out as Knippenberg attempts to find Sobhraji and bring him to justice.
What is especially clever is how writer Richard Warlow interweaves Knippenberg’s attempts to find his missing Dutch tourists with the story of how these tourists came into contact with Sobhraji. Warlow teases throughout the episode as to Sobhraji’s exact nature. Whilst it is evident from the outset that his is an unscrupulous crook, determined to gain as much money as possible his true psychopathic nature is not fully demonstrated to the viewers until the closing moments of the first episode during his murder of Theresa (Alice Englert) a young American backpacker who is journeying to a monastery to become a nun.
Warlow’s writing of this scene’s sheer horror is fantastically executed and not only is a commentary on how easy it is for people, far from home to disappear and be taken advantage of but also of Sobhraji’s cold, reptilian nature. To him this is as much a part of his life as smuggling jewels and partaking in parties which makes him all the more horrifying.
Warlow’s mastery of the interchanging scene and the uncertainty as to what Sobhraji is doing cements the addictive quality of the drama in the viewer’s mind and also allows the episode to never feel stale – by cutting from Knippenberg’s investigation into the disappearances to the various tourists encountering Sobhraji and being drawn into his world, Warlow is satisfying the necessities of the plot and also the audience’s need for continual movement.
The performances throughout are excellent. In particular, the central performances by Tahar Rahmin, Jenna Coleman and Billy Howle are exceptionally good, each one of them fully inhabiting their character and making them believable to the audience. Tahar Rahmin’s performance as Charles Sobhraji is especially effective; he emanates the cool, calculating nature of Sobhraji to a tee and seems to be the human personification of a reptilian nature. His movements are calculated and have a slow, deliberation to them that implies that whilst he might seem spontaneous, he is carefully calculating every single move. The scene in the strip club in which he spikes Theresa’s drink is an exceptionally brilliant piece of acting with Rahmin making clear through his eyes and his precise enunciation that he has decided to kill Theresa and that there is nothing she can do about it. A thoroughly chilling performance that from the very start of the drama until its end convinces you that Rahmin is playing a sadistic murderer with no conscience.
Whilst not as evidently vindictive, Jenna Coleman’s performance is just as crucial to selling the drama as Rahmin. Her performance as Marie-Andrée has an intoxicatingly involved quality. She is aware of Sobrahji’s methods of obtaining money and it seems at first nonplussed by his actions. However, as the episode progresses and we see the full extent of Sobhraji’s inhuman nature, Coleman brilliantly portrays Marie-Andrée horror at it yet her performance makes the subtle distinction between repulsion and an accustomed despair. The switch Coleman makes between being entirely hospitable to a ruthless disregard for life is Shakespearean and if her performance in The Serpent demonstrates anything other than her skill in her portrayal of Marie-Andrée, it is that she would make an excellent Lady Macbeth.
Billy Howle’s portrayal of Knippenberg is a wonderful contrast to Rahmin’s Sobhraji. Whilst Rahmin excels at portraying Sobhraji’s cool efficiency at killing, Howle is notable for giving Knippenberg a well-intentioned, if somewhat bumbling desire to do what is right. Whether dealing with his immediate superiors or the receptionist at a hostel he and his wife visit, Howle expresses wonderfully Knippenberg’s slight ill ease at his surroundings and his inability to asses a situation accurately. Yet, he also demonstrates Knippenberg’s passion with real dedication – during the scene at the hotel with the representatives from the Belgian and Australian embassies, Howle expresses his concern for the missing tourists and his desire to live up to his responsibility as a diplomat exceptionally well that you not only believe in Howle’s performance fully but are in earnest to see him succeed.
The first episode of The Serpent is a triumph that tells the tale of a vindictive man and the diplomat who did his best to catch him with frankness and eloquence that deserve recognition. It doesn’t ignore Sobhraji’s victims but rather places them at the centre of the drama and the character’s motivations – they exist as real people to us and not merely an element of a plot for a viewer’s entertainment. It is this honest purpose combined with Warlow’s superb writing and exceptionally engaging performances from the ensemble cast that make watching.
Contributed by Will Barber-Taylor
The Serpent Continues Sunday at 9.00pm on BBC One.
The Series is available in full on BBC iPlayer.