A word of caution around Netflix’s newest 8 part drama, The Serpent.
The timelines and flashbacks can sometimes get in the way of the drama, but the cavalier deception of gem dealer Charles Sobhraj and the pursuit by Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg is nonetheless engrossing.
The series is centred around Bangkok in the 1970s, when Charles Sobhraj and girlfriend Marie-Andrée Leclerc drugged young travellers after captivating them with his personality -and tactfully stealing their passports.
French actor Tahar Rahim (The Looming Tower, Mary Magdalene) looms large in the title role, slyly joined by Jenna Coleman (Victoria, Doctor Who). In the clash of gaudy ’70s fashions and vintage Thai wood they host a swinging apartment lifestyle, with booze, drugs, pool parties and sex. It acts like a magnet for hippy travellers from Europe and North America, but not all will emerge alive.
The death of two Dutch backpackers comes to the attention of Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle). But both his ambassador and Thai police offer little assistance prompting him to his own detective work, advised by Dutch expat Paul Siemons (Tim McInnerny).
Charles Sobhraj, known here as ‘Alain’ allows few into his inner circle, but one is Indian Ajay (Amesh Edireweera), who acts as a driver while surreptitiously luring potential victims to Alain’s apartment block. There’s also French traveller Dominique (Fabien Frankel), returning from working on yachts in Australia.
Much of the action takes place in period Bangkok, in bars, embassies, temples, airports and on the street and The Serpent has gone to great lengths to capture the era with convincing locations. There are also scenes in Chiang Mai, India, Nepal, France, Hong Kong (filming took place in Thailand and the UK). There is some subtitling but a small proportion.
Aussie Damon Herriman also makes an appearance, as a knockabout expat dishing out some friendly advice.
But it is Tahar Rahim enigmatic in the title role, brimming in malevolence, with a sexy, insidious performance and casting a spell like a shrewd cult leader. Part of the intrigue of the show is grasping his motive and end game: there are scars from his childhood, and torment around ‘imperialists.’ Yet the same can be asked of Marie -is she simply drawn to his charm? Perhaps hers is the more curious dramatic arc…
The Serpent may be inspired by real events but while the TV version is luridly romantic, the reality and dedly consequences were anything but.
The Serpent is now screening on Netflix.