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The Serpent, BBC One review - tracking down the hippie-trail murderer | reviews, news & interviews

The Serpent, BBC One review - tracking down the hippie-trail murderer

The Serpent, BBC One review - tracking down the hippie-trail murderer

Charming psychopath Charles Sobhraj's motives remain elusive in real life and on-screen

Befriend, drug, rob, murder: Marie-Andrée (Jenna Coleman) and Charles (Tahar Rahim)Roland Neveu/BBC/Mammoth Screen

“They’re only rich assholes.

They don’t merit your concern,” serial killer and psychopath Charles Sobhraj (Tahar Rahim, A Prophet, Heal the Living), aka rich French gem-dealer Alain Gautier, tells his girlfriend Marie-Andrée in The Serpent as he steals passports and money from a couple of unconscious tourists he’s just drugged on a beach in Thailand in the mid-Seventies.

“Free your mind from bourgeois sentiments. You’re above all this,” he encourages her. This is the first time that she begins to realise what she’s got herself into, having left Quebec for Asia and the love of a not-so-good man. One thing’s for sure: life with Tom Ripley-esque Charles is never boring. Or so you’d imagine.

Unfortunately director Tom Shankland (The Missing, Les Miserables) and writer Richard Warlow manage to make the endless hippie-trail druggings, robberies and killings rather monotonous, perhaps because they choose to focus on Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle, Dunkirk; pictured below with his wife Angela, played by Ellie Bamber, The Trials of Christine Keeler), a tenacious, bumbling, sweaty puppy-dog of a Dutch junior diplomat in Bangkok and empathy-free Charles’s diametric opposite.

Knippenberg is intent on solving the grisly murder of two young Dutch travellers in Bangkok, where Sobhraj and his entourage are based. But while putting Knippenberg centre-stage has the worthy purpose of not glorifying a narcissistic killer (Sobhraj has been in prison in Nepal since 2003 and it’s a testament to his manipulative power that the production team decided against the risk of interviewing him), it fails to reveal the charisma and psychological acumen that he employed to reel in his many naïve, idealistic victims. And the constant “three months earlier” or “10 months later” narrative switches don’t ratchet up the tension either, or at least not in the four episodes available for preview (there are eight in all).

Herman’s more sophisticated peers, who prefer to booze and chain-smoke in the tennis club, call him Cloggie and can’t see why he’s so worked up about a few long-hairs disappearing, though a Belgian colleague (Tim McInnerney) does get on board. The Serpent Rahim’s performance is so controlled and impassive (and his hair is a bit Lego-like) that it’s almost robotic. You don’t feel the famous power of Sobhraj’s voice, his invincible charm or his sixth sense for avoiding capture. Hence you don’t really get what the glazed-looking Marie-Andrée, aka Monique (an excellent Jenna Coleman) sees in him, or why she agrees to submit to his poisonous plans, or why it takes so long for someone to get suspicious about the Hotel California system that’s in operation in his Bangkok flat.

“I met him in Chiang Mai. He’s not very well,” Alain/Charles explains as he drags in Dominique, a Frenchman he’s just drugged: laxatives are his opening gambits, followed by Largactil, Quaaludes or Mogadon in condensed milk, delivered by kind nurse Monique. So good for stomach cramps, she explains. Funny that the pet monkey keels over and dies after lapping some up.

To be fair, it would be hard to do justice to Sobhraj’s shocking, intricate story, full of incredible Houdini-style jail-breaks and a sophisticated understanding of the workings of various judicial systems, combined with an uncanny ability to manipulate and betray women who still come back for more – and that’s even before the time-frame of this series begins. But to ignore his stateless, delinquent youth, part of it in a strict French boarding-school, and previous exploits in Vietnam and Paris is to render him rather flat, even though the series is focused on his capture. By 1976 he was Interpol's most wanted man and had arrest warrants in three different continents.The Serpent His life story is covered particularly brilliantly by Richard Neville and Julie Clarke in their 1979 book On the Trail of the Serpent, just re-issued with a new preface by Clarke. “Kids were hunting down the meaning of life and the promise of enlightenment like American big-game hunters,” she writes of Asia in the 1970s. To Sobhraj, these Western nomads were pathetic losers whose lives were worthless, though his motives for murder are never entirely clear.

“You throw yourself at men the way you throw yourself at religion,” Sobhraj tells Teresa (Alice Englert), a vibrant young Californian woman on her way to become a Buddhist nun in a monastery in Kathmandu. One of his first of many murder victims – he’s helped by his accomplice Ajay (Amesh Edireweera) – she’s slumped on the back seat of his car, her bag full of cash destined for the monastery, after he’s laced her drink in a sex club. “You cannot buy your way off the wheel. It’s very American of you to think otherwise.”

The scenes of carefree, stoned hippie life in Kanit House, the apartment block in Bangkok where Charles and Marie-Andrée live – endless lounging, swimming and partying to a moody Serge Gainsbourg soundtrack – form a nice contrast to straight-world Knippenberg and his efficient wife Angela, a skilled linguist, and their focused investigations, while the overland-travel scenes are atmospheric too. But this re-enactment of a bygone era, when Afghanistan, Kashmir, Iran and Pakistan were exotic stop-off points on the hazy journey to enlightenment, doesn’t nail its innocent, adventurous quality or its dark side. Sobhraj was like a serpent in a garden. You can’t help wondering what he’ll make of it, smirking in his cell.

Tahar Rahim’s performance is so controlled, un-smiling and impassive that it’s almost robotic


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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