THE SERPENT (BBC, 2021)
The story of Charles Sobhraj, a murderer, thief, and master of disguise, who was a hidden darkness in the mid-1970s on Asia's hippie trail.
The BBC launched their 2021 schedule with eight-part drama The Serpent, based on a true story, following the murders of Charles Sobhraj (at one point the world’s most wanted man) and how he was eventually brought to justice.
Set during the 1970s ‘Hippie Trail’, Sobhraj (Tahar Rahim) targeted backpackers fresh on their arrival to Asia, posing as a gem dealer to lure them to parties. His accomplices, lover Marie-Andrée Leclerc (Jenna Coleman) and right-hand man Ajay (Amesh Edireweera), enabled the continuation of these crimes by offering a good time to wide-eyed travellers in search of an adventure. Then, with their identities stolen, the victims were left as simply ‘missing’ for years… until Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle) entered the picture.
Tasked with investigating the string of murders and disappearances across Thailand, Nepal, and India, Knippenberg’s involvement becomes arguably the most interesting part of the story. Screenwriter Richard Marlow calls the character the “anchor”, providing a real hero for viewers to champion and his investigative twists drive the story forward. It’s a powerful and tenacious performance from Billy Howle (Dunkirk), and as a viewer you find yourself rooting for him the whole way, even more so through setbacks that momentarily derail the search.
Tahar Rahim’s Sobhraj is seductive and alluring, and yet all the while exuding a sense of unease and danger. However charming and captivating he may be, from the outset the story shows you his true self. Through the eyes of those closest to him, you see him as misguided salvation to the dreary former life of Marie-Andrée and a bullying manipulator to the impressionable Ajay. Charles preys on the vulnerable, not just the tourists but also those he seeks as accomplices. He makes them feel they need him and from their gratitude, he weaves a connection bound for life.
In comparison to Ajay’s brutality, Marie-Andrée Leclerc’s deadly impact is her silence. In some of the most sinister moments, the victims beg for her to help whilst they battle the poison they’ve been fed to keep them weak. She chooses to remain at the sidelines, but her accountability can’t be denied. She met Sobhraj on her travels as a insecure, lone wanderer, desperate to escape the life she left behind in Canada. As his nickname ‘The Serpent’ indicates, Sobhraj senses her susceptibility and lavishes her with the attention she’s been craving all her life. It’s a stand-out performance from Jenna Coleman (Doctor Who), who plays the part with quiet conviction and makes a credible attempt at a French-Canadian accent.
As is the new tradition for broadcasters navigating the ever-changing waters of broadcast and platform content, the full series of The Serpent was made available to watch on BBC iPlayer whilst simultaneously being shown over eight weeks on BBC One. With a national lockdown and non-existent willpower, I consumed the series over five days. It’s easy to say I enjoyed the series, but it did pose questions over how the series would be consumed differently by audiences. The drama consistently hops between time frames, circling Knippenberg’s ongoing investigation, the murders, and the flashbacks to Sobhraj and Leclerc’s past lives. Watching over two months, I may have found navigating the time-hopping even harder than in my almost week-long binge. Even more apparent is the pace in which the story picks up towards the climactic episode. With the charging of Sobhraj lasting over several years, I found myself yearning for some sort of conclusion. Would a weekly watch have meant I was highly invested as I was?
Social media reaction to the show seemed to show viewer’s surprise on discovering a true crime story they’d never heard of. One could argue, as it took place during a time before missing person posts on Facebook and Sobrhaj’s continuing avoidance of accountability, this meant the murders went more under the radar than would be true today. However, it’s the young travellers who never came home who are at the heart of the story, and provide the motivation to show ‘The Serpent’ and his sidekicks in their true light.
Amidst providing all the glamour and prospects of freedom in 1970s Asia, The Serpent is a frightening watch, perhaps more so for those aspiring backpackers seeking adventure when the world starts to open up again. For someone who’s done a bit of travelling, it did make me wonder how the experience could’ve been different if I was unlucky enough to be in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Sobhraj often blamed his victims for their fate, implying their drug use or profiting made them unworthy of any sympathy. The show does its best to rewrite those false accusations and helps them reclaim their lost identity.
The powerful ending concludes with a dedication “To all young intrepids who set out with big dreams. But never made it home”. This struck a chord not with the intention to make people fear travelling, but to remind people of the beauty of escapism and uncovering new cultures. This becomes all the more poignant when you see the real-life people behind the characters appear on the screen. As with all drama based on a true story, the show makes you immediately reach for you phone to find out more about the real investigation.
As the BBC’s most watched drama since the success of 2020’s Normal People during the first lockdown, The Serpent certainly isn’t an easy watch. However with strong performances from a talented cast and a dynamic story arc to keep you on your toes, it’s a legitimate binge watch to take you out of the present day and back to a time of freedom and possibility.
UK | 2021 | 461 MINUTES • 8 EPISODES | COLOUR | ENGLISH
writers: Richard Warlow & Toby Finlay.
directors: Tom Shankland & Hans Herbots.
starring: Tahar Rahim, Jenna Coleman, Billy Howle, Ellie Bamber, Mathilde Warnier & Tim McInnerny.