The Serpent is a heady 1970s-set portrait of a globetrotting playboy killer

Tahar Rahim embodies the sinister criminal behind the seductive mask with considerable aplomb, taking advantage of more permissive times to wreak havoc among its more gullible denizens.

Jenna Coleman as Marie-Andrée Leclerc and Tahar Rahim as Charles Sobhraj in The Serpent

▶︎ The Serpent (eight episodes) is on BBC One and iPlayer from 1 January 2021.

This eight-hour true-crime drama opens with what nowadays might be termed a non-denial denial. Interviewed by a US TV reporter in Paris in 1997, Charles Sobhraj, a French national of Vietnamese and Indian extraction, is questioned about his criminal past. “The question is whether I have committed murder,” he muses – actor Tahar Rahim keeping a serene poker face: “The courts they have decided, no,” is his somewhat evasive assessment. What follows is a vividly mounted, if somewhat partial, fact-based narrative, attempting to uncover the truth of Sobhraj’s nefarious exploits, while drawing a portrait of the seductive persona and skewed psychology behind the carnage.

With numerous dead bodies, a string of prison escapes, plus decades of charismatic manipulation, fake passports and a playboy lifestyle jet-setting across south-east Asia, it’s no wonder Sobhraj has already inspired two books, an Australian miniseries, a Bollywood feature and sundry television documentaries. For this BBC/Netflix offering, the writer Richard Warlow – who scripted the series with Toby Finlay, one of the writers on Warlow’s Victorian crime saga Ripper Street (2012-16) – credits Richard Neville and Julie Clarke’s nonfiction study Bad Blood (1980) as a source.

After that teasing 1997-dated opener, they throw the viewer right into the middle of the story: we’re in the heady milieu of 1975 Bangkok, realised by directors Tom Shankland and Hans Herbots with self-consciously exotic, retro-inflected visuals, as if they were channelling the louche, woozy travelogue sections of Just Jaeckin’s Emmanuelle (1974), before the simulated couplings kicked in.

For privileged white travellers, the availability of chemical or sensual pleasures is the draw; but the script illuminates how that permissiveness also left some of them feeling unmoored and unsure, the perfect prey for a suave predator like Sobhraj. Rahim, who built his career from Jacques Audiard’s The Prophet (2007) onwards playing resilient naïfs, here slips into a very different register, gliding along on supreme self-confidence: Sobhraj – at this point pretending to be a gems dealer called Alain – presents as a charismatic alpha male lording it over a seemingly unending pool party, his not-quite-convincing flowing locks only contributing to the sinister sense of a man living behind a façade. He shelters these lost boys and girls, surreptitiously poisons them, disposes of the bodies, then uses their passports to facilitate his own business dealings – all possible in the days when stuck-on ID photos could easily be switched. With the assorted revellers too out of it to spot what’s going on, and the local police apparently unwilling to bother investigating, ‘Alain’ has a lawless environment in which he can operate with impunity.

The Serpent (2020)

Ripper Street had Matthew Macfadyen’s upright police officer fighting to maintain order in a morass of iniquity; here, the unlikely upholder of moral values is Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle), a low-level functionary at the Dutch embassy, who discovers that recently found charred human remains are a missing young Dutch couple and decides to circumvent the Thai police’s indolence by investigating on his own.

By this point, it’s obvious what Sobhraj is capable of: how to bring him to justice without further endangering the lives of his young French associates, who are gradually realising what a monster is in their midst? Heightening the tension, the writers nimbly skips back and forth in time between Sobhraj’s increasingly heinous acts and Knippenberg’s subsequent attempts to piece events together – amusingly turning the flip-over lettering of old-school airport arrival boards into a handy calendar – while the early episodes heighten tension by retracing events in Bangkok from multiple perspectives. We learn Sobhraj’s methods, viewers kept ahead of the curve as his Dutch would-be nemesis struggles to catch up. Meanwhile, the killer’s besotted partner Marie-Andrée Leclerc (Jenna Coleman, suitably remote behind massive 70s shades) struggles with her conscience, repelled by what’s going on yet seemingly trapped by his commanding personality.

The BBC made the first half of the series available for review; at the point where it stopped, the story was gathering considerable momentum – though a glance at Sobhraj’s Wikipedia entry reveals many twists and turns yet to come. The writers create an alluring antihero, allowing us to understand his grievances as an ethnic and social outsider; but compared with, say, the crimes of the terrorist master at the heart of Olivier Assayas’s similarly globe-trotting Carlos (2010), Sobhraj’s murders are much more clearly the product of a warped psyche, driven less by ideology than by a pitiless egotism that may yet prove his undoing.

And while we register Sobhraj’s scorn for the Euro-trash tourist class, the drama itself essentially reduces the Thai characters, for instance, to minor roles as dodgy cops, bar girls and embassy flunkies. That comes across as retro, but not in a good way – unlike Dominik Scherrer’s marvellous score, a riot of analogue synths and percussion drawing on exploitation movie soundtracks of yore to intoxicating effect, and adding just a hint of illicit viewing pleasure to spice up the schedules.