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Crime Files – The Serpent #TVReview

The twisting, real-life story of Charles Sobhraj, a murderer, thief and seductive master of disguise, who was a hidden darkness in the mid-70’s on Asia’s hippie trail.

Title: The Serpent | Starring: Tahar Rahim, Billy Howle, Jenna Coleman | Director: Hans Herbots, Tom Shankland | Writer: Richard Warlow, Toby Finlay | Release Date: 2021 | Runtime: 7 hr 38 min (8 episodes) | Genre: Crime | Source: BBC iPlayer (available on Netflix US)  | Starred Review

The Serpent Review

‘The Serpent’ is a sprawling, atmospheric true crime drama from the BBC about the French serial killer Charles Sobhraj. Sobhraj travelled through Asia in the 1970s, befriending and then killing western backpackers and stealing their belongings. His crimes funded a comfortable lifestyle, that also saw him dealing precious gems and ensnaring accomplices. 

With eight episodes, each pushing an hour in length, ‘The Serpent’ is almost too long, but it justifies its duration with a rich atmosphere and a wonderful slow burn pacing that really pulled me in. Sobhraj’s story is framed as a battle of wits between him and Herman Knippenberg, a young Dutch diplomat in Bangkok who is investigating the disappearance of a couple from Holland. Knippenberg’s growing obsession with catching the killer gives the series a thoroughly satisfying narrative arc and the characterisation of both men is beautifully handled. Sobhraj is an evil, narcissistic genius; Knippenberg a plodding but tenacious seeker of justice. 

The series has two great strengths. Its relaxed 70s atmosphere and some superb performances from the cast. The director uses apparently vintage footage to introduce many of the scenes, seamlessly transitioning into the action. The use of contemporary music is great too, and the overall attention to detail is exemplary. I don’t know what the budget was, but many scenes are packed with extras and the location shooting across Asia adds to the richness. It never feels for even a second like you aren’t looking at another time and place.

The cast are all good, but Billy Howle as Knippenberg and Tahar Rahim as Sobhraj are particularly captivating. Rahim oozes destructive charm and Howle quiet desperation. The contrast between the two is pitch perfect. I also particularly enjoyed Tim McInnery as the somewhat disreputable Belgian diplomat Paul Siemons, a character who makes an excellent sidekick to Knippenberg and adds a lot of humour to an otherwise dark tale.

Neither the acting nor the atmosphere would matter much if the story didn’t grip, but fortunately it does. It’s a slow burn to be sure, with a lot of time spent on detail and character building, but that pays off in the scenes of tension which are often almost unbearable. It all adds up to a wonderful viewing experience that has the depth and richness of a great novel. 

Watch it on Netflix (US) or BBC IPlayer (UK).

Content warning:

graphic violence, drug use, rape, sexual harassment

Published inCrime FilesStarred ReviewsTelevision reviews

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