In its second episode of eight, The Serpent merely winds its way to a distant conclusion that we already know is to come
The problem with The Serpent (BBC One) is that it’s a unit that we already know who did it. As this retelling of the true story of the serial killer of the Seventies, Charles Sobhraj, snaked its way through the second of eight episodes, no attempt was made to hide the French ex-pat’s crime or to wrap him in a mysterious veil. He was a greedy, dingy sociopath who hunted down naive backpackers traveling to Thailand in search of a hippie haven.
The strength of the drama was instead based on the memory of Bangkok half a century ago. The thrill of the tourist trail has been compellingly recreated. But while part two of The Serpent stood out as a snapshot of the past, it was less convincing when the action shifted back to the charismatic Sobhraj busy drugging and robbing unsuspecting hostel hoppers.
One way the series has tried to bring a new perspective to the case – which has already inspired three non-fiction books, a Bollywood film, and an episode of Law and Order: Criminal Intent – is to take it from the Sobhraj’s friend Marie-Andrée Leclerc designed perspective. Of course, this choice may also have something to do with the fact that Leclerc is portrayed by Jenna Coleman, by far the most famous actress.
As in the first episode, her biggest challenge was Leclerc’s French-Canadian accent. She did her best. But you never knew you were watching Jenna Coleman. That may not have been entirely her fault. Richard Warlow and Toby Finlay’s script did not bring up Leclerc or Sobhraj (Tahar Rahim) meat and bones, the most memorable attribute of which was its retro glasses from the 1970s.
It is true that a rudimentary psychoanalysis was attempted on Sobhraj, who in Paris could never forget his mixed Vietnamese-Indian heritage. But The Serpent seemed generally determined to portray it as a space that Rahim had little to do with.
It stayed that way when he looked back at the beginning of his relationship with Leclerc, who was romping around in Kashmir with an ex-fiance. Sobhraj posed as a photographer and seduced her with his film star look and reserved charm (so understated that he was not on screen). .
It wasn’t until later in Bangkok that she realized he wasn’t all he appeared to be, as it turned out he had a local lover whose father was prominent in the military. Sobhraj’s violent nature, meanwhile, became clear when he and buddy Ajay Chowdhury (Amesh Edireweera) turned on the Dutch backpackers who poisoned them.
It was the elements of the travelogue that impressed the most. The 1970s Bangkok was a wonderful playground to get lost in. The fragmented world in which Western diplomats lived was evoked with particular vivacity.
Here Tim McInnerny shone as the gruff Belgian attaché Siemons. He reluctantly assisted the idealistic Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle) in his investigation into the disappearance of the backpackers.
Knippenberg was convinced that a murderer was targeting tourists. The Thai authorities were indifferent, however, while the bosses of the embassies despised the « long hair » that poured into Bangkok. The only hope was a clue from a mysterious French woman who was apparently aware of Sobhraj’s actions.
These scenes, in which Knippenberg was negotiating about Thailand’s sultry underbelly, were extremely atmospheric (and all the more impressive when production had to be relocated from Thailand to Hertfordshire in the spring). . But they couldn’t compensate for a serial killer drama in which the essential thriller component seemed to have evaporated in Bangkok’s pounding heat.
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Charles Sobhraj, Jenna Coleman, BBC One and Tahar Rahim
EbeneMagazine – GB – The Serpent, episode 2