The first big drama of 2021 is just the thing to perk you up after a lonely, gloomy Christmas: an eight-part true crime about a serial killer. The Serpent (BBC One) tells the grisly tale of Charles Sobhraj, the notorious French conman who murdered at least 12 people between 1963 and 1976, mostly backpackers on the hippie trail around southeast Asia.
The first episode begins with an interview with Sobhraj (Tahar Rahim), in which an American journalist asks him if he is dangerous. The question, he replies, is whether he was found guilty of murder by the courts. He wasn’t. Although the cases could hardly be more different, and Sobhraj is more of a showman than a loner, there are similarities between Sobhraj and David Tennant’s portrayal of Dennis Nilsen in Des. Both men were rational, and fully aware of the fascination their cases would hold for the public.
The action jumps between Sobhraj committing his crimes and the start of the pursuit that would eventually bring him to justice. We see Charles and his partner Marie-Andrée Leclerc (Jenna Coleman) stalking bars for vulnerable young tourists to shark on. Their tactic is to befriend travellers, winning their trust by poisoning them and helping them back to health. They meet a naive Dutch couple in Hong Kong and offer to get them a good deal on gemstones and put them up in Bangkok. Separately we are introduced to an American, Theresa Knowlton, keen to get some hedonism out of her system before she joins a monastery in Nepal.
Then in 1975, Herman Knippenberg (played by Billy Howle), an ambitious young Dutch diplomat in Bangkok, learns of the disappearance of two of his countrymen. He starts making enquiries with the help of his wife, Angela (Ellie Bamber), but it’s tough going. The Thai police are not especially helpful, and there’s resistance from his fellow diplomats, too, who disparage the “longhairs” as dope-smoking hippies who get what they deserve.
Sobhraj is a swarthy, sultry kind of psychopath, and The Serpent does its best to sex up his crimes within the bounds of reasonable good taste. The killer is still alive, and seems like the kind of man who would relish his life story being given such glamorous treatment. Rahim plays him as a kind of killer Bee Gee, with a handsome but often expressionless face and trousers that end somewhere round his chin. His motive, if he has one, is obscure. There’s a fine line between inscrutable and dull, and Rahim stays mostly on the right side. Coleman, plotting and pouting at his side, relishes the femme fatale gig compared to her usual more wholesome parts.
It’s not quick. Even allowing for the need to introduce the characters and the timeframes, the pace is glacial, at odds with the rapid changes of time and location. As a co-production between the BBC and Netflix, The Serpent has no shortage of expensive foreign shoots and period detail, along with the now-obligatory Game of Thrones-style title sequence. But as the first instalment builds slowly to its grim conclusion, it’s Herman’s storyline that’s the more interesting of the two. We know what the snake is going to do. The challenge is catching it.
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