Cunning and calculating, murderer Charles Sobhraj makes for an intriguing antagonist in BBC One’s new crime thriller, The Serpent.
Jumping back and forward in the timeline, The Serpent documents Sobhraj’s time as his alter-ego, gemstone dealer, Alain Gautier. Sobhraj killed multiple travellers across Southeast Asia in the 1970’s along with his accomplices, Marie-Andrée Laclerc and Ajay Chowdhury. While Laclerc, Sobhraj’s French-Canadian girlfriend, turned a blind eye to what went on, Sobhraj and Chowdhury would go on to commit over 20 murders. Sobhraj and his accomplices would befriend their victims prior to drugging, robbing and eventually killing them.
The Serpent introduces French actor Tahar Rahim as the infamous serial killer. Rahim starred in the BAFTA award winning French language film A Prophet as well as in the film Mary Magdelene. The actor captures the personality of Charles Sobhraj perfectly. Sobhraj consistently knows what his next steps are and how to ensure his friends remain loyal. Rahim easily portrays this ability to control all those around him. This is especially apparent in his relationship with Marie-Andree Laclerc, played by Jenna Coleman. Again, Coleman is fantastic in this series as we see Laclerc turning into Monique, Sobhraj’s ideal girlfriend, as well as falling out of the illusion and becoming more concerned by Sobhraj’s actions.
After Sobhraj himself, the most chilling character in the series is undoubtedly Ajay Chowdhury, played brilliantly by Amesh Edireweera. After meeting Sobhraj in Thailand, Ajay becomes his most loyal follower and right-hand man. He assists Sobhraj unquestioningly with his robberies and murders, even, at times, carrying them out for him. Chowdhury’s attitude throughout the entire series is frightening, arrogant and intimidating. Chowdhury disappeared in 1976. In the series we see him left in the wilderness by Sobhraj, though in reality some believe he too was murdered. This makes Edireweera’s portrayal of Chowdhury extremely powerful, as his true nature is far more mysterious than any other character in the series.
While we witness Sobhraj’s ongoing murders, we are also given the story of Herman Knippenberg and his wife Angela. Knippenberg uncovered Sobhraj’s murder streak when he began investigating the deaths of two Dutch tourists while he worked at the Dutch Embassy in Bangkok, where Sobhraj and his accomplices were also living. While his growing obsession with Sobhraj ruined his relationship and work life, Knippenberg did not give up on ensuring justice for Sobhraj’s victims.
Billy Howle, who you may know from Dunkirk, again plays this role perfectly. He believably portrays Knippenberg’s descent into madness as he becomes obsessive about Sobhraj and his actions. This goes as far as alienating his wife Angela (Ellie Bamber) who throughout the series helps and supports Knippenberg in discovering the truth. Knippenberg also receives the help of Nadine (Mathilde Warnier) and Remi Girs (Grégoire Isvarine), Sobhraj’s neighbours and friends who equally want to get to the bottom of what has been going on. The team work together to identify other potential victims of Sobhraj and eventually convince the police of his crimes. Though Sobhraj manages to escape multiple times, he is eventually jailed for good in Nepal.
While the acting in this series is first class, the cinematography and fashion helps us to believe we are truly watching the story play out in the 1970’s. Each episode includes short clips of the decade, blended with new scenes from the show, transporting the viewer to the 1970’s and giving the show a sense of realness to go along with the true story it tells. Marie’s fashion sense when she plays the role of ‘Monique’ also brings this show to life. Not only are her clothes envy worthy, but also add to the image Sobhraj wanted her to portray. Classy and stylish, Monique appears as the perfect girlfriend for successful gemstone merchant, Alain Gautier.
In the final scenes of The Serpent we see Knippenberg aid the police in Sobhraj’s final arrest in Nepal, finally securing a life sentence for the killer he spent his life trying to catch. We are also, satisfyingly, given information on what happened to each character after the events of the series. Marie-Andrée Laclerc was released from prison to return to Canada to die after a cancer diagnosis. She died aged 38, far away from Sobhraj. Herman Knippenberg is now retired in New Zealand and still ensures his files on Sobhraj are updated to this day.