‘The Serpent’ review: like its subject, slick and vicious

In October 2008, Charles Sobhraj married Nihita Biswas. He was 64, she all of 20. The two fell in love when she applied as an interpreter for his French lawyer. He was—and continues to be—incarcerated in a jail in Kathmandu, Nepal. This mind-boggling alliance is mentioned as a card title as the curtains drop on The Serpent, an eight-part series on the serial killer who, in the mid-1970s, was on a murderous rampage, devouring lives with gluttony that was mind-numbing. 

And that is the biggest mystery—and lesson—that The Serpent uncoils. How does someone fall in love with a known killer? What does someone like Sobhraj possess that they possess the other person, irrespective of their gender? Why do humans get so easily hypnotized and fascinated by devious personalities? Is it because we find in the deceiver that smooth personality that we all craved to be, or craved for? Or do we automatically prop up strong personalities as the bridge of saviors? As this raging and unforgiving pandemic has shown, we’re all sitting on the edge of an emotional precipice, and always have been—no matter how haughty or doughty our exteriors—inevitably to be pushed over by a force beyond our control. The Serpent—one of Sobhraj’s sobriquets—was one such pandemic, slithering from continent to continent, seductively lowering guards and emotional masks, and then going in for the kill. 

Tahar Rahim: a chilling performance.

Written by Richard Warlow and Toby Finlay and directed by Tom Shankland and Hans Herbots, the show’s a slick-fest, combining late 60s and mid-70s European zeitgeist with the heady abandon that Bangkok offered. And what Sobhraj (Tahar Rahim) offers, posing as gem-stone Alain Gautier in this Central Thailand city, is a refuge of sorts for unsuspecting hippie-trailers in his apartment at Kanit House. There’s parties, music, a pool, and a sickly Dominique Renelleau (Fabien Frankel) who seems as consumed by Gautier’s persona as the meds that his wife Marie-Andrée Leclerc (Jenna Coleman) and inseparable Man Friday Ajay Chowdhury (Amesh Edireweera) feed him. Dominique has his own plotline that unfurls in a later episode—also the most suspenseful one, dangling you at the end of a short breath and a prayer a la Argo’s climax. That something’s askew hangs like a whiff of poison in the air, and that’s precisely what Dutch diplomat stationed in Bangkok, Herman Knippenberg (a sputteringly nervous and anxiety-ridden top act by Billy Howle) sniffs out, after the disappearance of a couple, last seen at Gautier’s apartment. Knippenberg is as dogged as his boss, Ambassador van Dongen (William Brand) is infuriated by his pursuit, as his wife Angela Knippenberg (a quietly intense Ellie Bamber) is supportive. Helped in his investigations by a seemingly carefree yet empathetic Belgian diplomat Paul Siemons (Tim McInnerny playing this role with a light-touch-yet-affecting Bill Murray-ish charm), Knippenberg has allies in Gautier’s Kanit House neighbors, Nadine and Remi (Mathilde Warnier and Grégoire Isvarine) whose role in casing their deadly apartment inhabitant gets increasingly fraught with emotions, doubt, and danger. Especially as it becomes eminently clear that the missing couple is but one entry in a long string of murders, identity, and material theft that Gautier, Marie, and Ajay have carried out. 

Mathilde Warnier and Jenna Coleman: neighbourly bonhomie.

In telling the story, Shankland and Herbots employ a time-jumping technique that cuts back and forth between dates and years, the erstwhile split-flap display in airports whirring on the screen to inform you of your current posish on the calendar. And that jumpiness can tax you initially, even appear wearisome, as you try and figure out the characters’—and your own—bearings, but as the story progresses and the editing team (Helen ChapmanMalcolm CroweDanielle Palmer, and Miikka Leskinen) begins to piece events together, putting shards of earlier scenes into perspective, you’re all but enthralled, even if not completely updated. In a sense, the entire series, imbued with 70s-color brightness, is a blur of events, a mystery of whirring movement, slick and vicious in intent like its subject, throwing you off, but not so much that you’d give up on it. Adding to the unnerving psychedelia is Dominik Scherrer’s tight background score that adds Pink Floyd-ish tension and thumping echoes and sounds. What’s truly mysterious though is the absence of real-life Indian cop Madhukar Zende’s equally focused pursuit of Sobhraj, a sore and unforgivable miss, even if the makers add a composite character of Indian cops as a pale nod to the original. 

Of the cast, Jenna Coleman, playing Sobhraj’s wife Marie, steeps her act in hypnotized connivance, bidding herself for a life she’s longed for with a man she truly wants to believe in, fighting the darkness that shrouds them with a hopeless trudge in a never-ending tunnel of evil.

Jenna Coleman, Tahar Rahim: in good times, or were they ever?

Amesh Edireweera as Ajay is terrific, an oily, revolting act, even as his character’s forever at the receiving end of racism from the same man whose biggest propulsion is ostensibly his mixed lineage that squelched his own acceptance in France. In the lead role, Tahar Rahim is icily suave and chillingly cold, his calculated act making him supremely effective. And yet, in his act, you can’t quite fathom what made his character who he was, what spun behind those eyes that held back more than they spoke, and that perhaps will remain as big a mystery as Sobhraj’s arsenic charm. It’s best not to let your guard down. 

The Serpent (2021) on IMDb Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers.

The Serpent is streaming on Netflix and rated A (For adults only) for drugs, sex, and violence.
The Serpent
Directors Tom ShanklandHans Herbots Time ~ 58min
Writers Richard WarlowToby Finlay
Stars Tahar Rahim, Jenna Coleman, Billy Howle, Amesh Edireweera, Ellie Bamber, Mathilde Warnier
Genres Crime, Drama, Thriller