Getting a larger-than-life international criminal like ‘The Serpent’ to fit into a screen isn’t easy by any standards. The suave, slick Sobhraj Sobhraj was a multi-faceted criminal, a thief, a fraudster, and a serial killer, hiding behind the bold lines and colors of the 70s.
The Netflix series portrays the true-crime story of Charles Sobhraj, an enigma wrapped in a mystery, who to this day resides in the realm of the stranger than fiction category. The serial manages to bring in some of the chills into the world of this merciless killer. But the spell isn’t sustained and the drabness and repetitiveness break through at times.
The tale of the French conman and serial killer’s tale is a grisly saga of cold-blooded murder and treachery set in the hippie trails crowded with wealthy western teens out to explore the exotic orient. It is the BBC’s first big drama this year and should captivate audiences not familiar with the shocking tale of the murderous con couple.
A Tale Of Greed And Depravity Straddling Continents
Tahar Rahim and Jenna Coleman, as Sobhraj and Marie-Andree Leclerc respectively, are tantalizingly close to depicting the heady mix of the style quotient of the seventies and the depraved lives of a couple of serial killers who retain their charm even as they continue on their killing spree.
The overall storyline of ‘The Serpent’ is indeed true. Starting from the mid-70s, Sobhraj posed as a gem dealer and flitted in and out of Nepal, Thailand, and India. They quietly carried out a spree of crimes on the hippie trail between South Asia and Europe. It was across this trail passing through Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, and India that the couple preyed on backpacking western travelers cut from their moorings.
The series covers a small time frame as Sobhraj uses his guile and charm to captivate, rob, and kill his unsuspecting victims mercilessly.
Sobhraj, now living out the last years in jail in Nepal after a long stint of style and comfort at a jail in India, is seen as a suave and wealthy gem broker with the wispy Marie as his loving wife. Together they pick out unsuspecting travelers, winning over them with their lethal combination of style and kindness. Eventually, they are poisoned, murdered, and relieved of their belongings.
But as the suspects regularly slip in and out of the range of the authorities, a junior diplomat with the Dutch Embassy in Thailand, Herman Knippenberg becomes obsessed with their complex and confusing web of lies, deceit, and murder.
His dogged investigation and pursuit of the criminals goaded by the request of a family ultimately leads to an international manhunt as Sobhraj ‘The Serpent’ Sobhraj becomes Interpol’s most wanted. There were arrest warrants for him across multiple continents.
The series depicts the love blossoming between Sobhraj and the wispy young girl from Quebec, Marie. The music is apt for the occasions and gradually builds on the chilling tale set against the lovely backdrop of the colorful 70s. The director has displayed an eye for detail.
An Eye For Detail That Captures The Aimlessness Of The 70s
The set and the music conjure the magical flavor and aura of the decade. It was a period of aimless freedom in part a revolt against the western excesses in Vietnam. These young white kids felt left out of the nirvana of the 60s and satiated their thirst by flaunting their western wealth in the relatively cheaper expanses of Asia. These solitary travelers and couples flitted in and out of countries and were just the right target for ‘The Serpent’ as they kept disappearing across countries on the trail, murdered and robbed of their belongings and their passport, which Sobhraj used to forge identities.
The camera has been generous and loving in capturing the captivating beauty of Thailand. It enthralls and intoxicates, much as it did the unsuspecting travelers nearly half a century ago. Young backpackers flit in and out of cities and countries and eventually disappear forever. “The Serpent’ and his consort are gone before their victims are even missed.
But then the filthy nature of the crime eventually gets to you. And also the frustration of the people pursuing them, dogged in their determination, but eventually frustrated by the authorities’ lack of support. Herman Knippenberg, the Dutch diplomat cannot let go of the plea from the family of a couple who falls victim to Sobhraj. He is discouraged by his boss but still carries on, on his own.
With a little help from friends, he eventually arrives at the bitter truth about the backpackers. But it makes him more determined to continue his hunt.
‘The Serpent’ moves well along the predictable lines of a mystery thriller. But the continuous leap over timelines, at times over years, is a constant annoyance throughout the series.
An American crew managed to track the free Sobhraj Sobhraj to Paris. The serial opens with the chilling interview in 1997 with an American reporter who prods Sobhraj to explicitly admit to the murders, though it is doubtful that such a brilliant criminal mind would get trapped by a mere reporter.
‘The Serpent’ Presents A Lost Opportunity To Explore The Layers Behind The Inscrutable Exterior
The writers, Toby Finlay and Richard Warlow let go of an opportunity to explore the mind behind the crimes. The character of Sobhraj could have been explored to reveal a lot more of the merciless killer.
The psychological exploration of the ‘The Serpent’ is limited to exploring the sense of not belonging that assails Sobhraj. He was of mixed parentage, Indian father and Vietnamese mother, and grew up in France. He displays contempt for western excesses. It serves as a justification for him to goad his conspirators to participate in his sustained killing spree over countries.
Rahim has given a competent portrayal of a cold and calculating killer. An impenetrable killer hiding behind a charming and inscrutable facade. But he seems limited by the script that robs him of a chance to explore the deep-rooted impulses that prod him to commit such crimes. But Sobhraj has managed to hide much of his life behind a curtain that makes any attempt to explore the reason for his behavior an exercise in futility.
This is what works against ‘The Serpent’ as a series. The unending murders numb beyond a point and the audience is left with many unanswered questions that could have been explored. There were opportunities galore to explore the soul behind the mask.
Rahim and his partner in crime are both brilliant in their roles and are charming and elegant. Howle is the perfect foil with his solid and no-nonsensical approach. The other characters have not been explored beyond a point.
The Authenticity Of ‘The Serpent’ Should Resonate With The Audience
There is also the irritant of the crime and the investigation not seeming to be part of the same storyline. But then one thing that should be going for ‘The Serpent’ is that the audience has an unsatiated appetite for serial killers, especially one outwardly as charming and mysterious as Sobhraj. The story has it all, a dreamy setting, a seductive timeline, a charming lead, and enough danger and evil to keep the audience engrossed.
The storyline has been too thinly developed to keep you engrossed over a long period; it might resonate with many enthusiasts of crime series. ‘The Serpent’ made headlines across the continent in his heyday and reveled in the attention. He remains relatively unknown to the younger generation and this series’ writers have done a competent job in managing to keep the mystery alive for those new to the case. ‘The Serpent’ to this day remains intensely dense and secretive and unreadable, and impossible to foretell to this day.