Review: The Serpent - The toxic charms of a killer

Jess Bradbury believes the new BBC crime drama, The Serpent, is to die for as she gives it a rave review

Jess Bradbury
17th January 2021
Credit: BBC on YouTube
With the latest lockdown looking to continue for the foreseeable future, the BBC has provided a killer drama to fill the time in the form of The Serpent. Spoilers ahead! 

The series opens in 1970s Thailand, retelling the horrific crimes of Charles Sobhraj (Tahir Rahim) who drugged and murdered Western travellers along the hippie trail between Europe and South Asia. There is no doubt that the series is a dark one, the ominous tone is immediately set by the opening sequence as an older Sobhraj is interviewed by an American journalist. It is then that we are transported back to 1970s Bangkok, and the slow-burning first episode intricately weaves Sobhraj’s murderous web. Accomplices Marie-Andrée Leclerc (Jenna Coleman) and Ajay Chowdury (Amesh Edireweera), who both abet him in exploiting young travellers, are introduced and we witness some of the trio’s first torments. 

Jenna Coleman's performance is stellar as Marie-Andrée Leclerc. Credit: BBC on YouTube.

Jenna Coleman’s performance is particularly enthralling as the lover of the serial killer. Throughout the series we see her character battling with the guilt of what she and Sobhraj are doing, often seeing that she chooses to ignore the truth about her fiancé, as she dons the alias Monique to fit in with the lethally sophisticated world around her. The change that we see in her character as the series progresses, from the timid woman from Québec to a cold, calculating accomplice, is astonishing as we can never quite get in her head. Coleman portrays the devotion she had to Sobhraj with great skill, often leading us to ask the question: does Charles Sobrhaj’s emotional manipulation of Marie-Andrée Leclerc also make her a victim?

The stark contrast between the sultry psychopath and young diplomat makes for nail-biting drama

Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle) is a standout role in the show. Credit: BBC on YouTube.

One of the most gripping parts of the series is the cat-and-mouse game played between Sobhraj and Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle), who aided by his wife Angela (Ellie Bamber), begin an investigation into the disappearance of a young Dutch couple and uncover multiple horrors. The stark contrast between the sultry psychopath and young diplomat makes for nail-biting drama as we never see the characters interact, save for a near meeting when Sobhraj is in police custody, yet Knippenberg is always ready to prove his crimes. Billy Howle is another stand out of the series, as his character stops at nothing to make sure Sobhraj is punished and that justice is brought for the victims.

The only downside is the somewhat confusing time jumps at the beginning of the series. However, these do not provide many hindrances as they often intertwine in later episodes to portray different character views of the same event. Sobhraj’s eventual capture in Nepal is a moment of great satisfaction, but the real tribute of the series belongs to Knippenberg’s work and to the real-life victims. The portrayal of their humanity adds a sense poignance to the rest of Sobhraj’s world, which continually puts you on the edge of your seat. One thing is clear throughout, the trail of the killer is a long, devastating one and it is deadly to think the path offered by the suave criminal is safe.

Credit: BBC Trailers on YouTube.

The full series of The Serpent is available on BBC iPlayer.

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