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Home TV Shows Reviews ‘The Serpent’ Series Review: Cold- Blooded, Venomous and Deadly

‘The Serpent’ Series Review: Cold- Blooded, Venomous and Deadly

“The Serpent” is a true-crime story that falls squarely in the stranger than fiction category

Ritika Kispotta - Wed, 14 Apr 2021 13:01:40 +0100 2774 Views
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Based on the crimes of French conman and serial killer Charles Sobhraj, Netflix's "Serpent”  is a twisty, spine-tingling saga of murder and betrayal set in Asia in the 1970s. Sobhraj (played with quiet menace by "The Mauritanian" actor Tahar Rahim) and his accomplices systematically robbed and murdered young hippies seeking adventure in Asia. The Serpent tells the story of how Charles Sobhraj, who killed young western travelers in 1975 and 1976, was brought to justice, although justice is light on the ground in this first episode, which concentrates largely on the atmosphere. We first meet Sobhraj in 1997, living freely in Paris. Jenna Coleman, Billy Howle, Ellie Bamber among others also star.

The timeline-hopping, frequently explaining that we are either “two months earlier” or “two months later”, is unnecessary and a little confusing. I can see that it is supposed to build tension, dipping back and forth into what happened to the Dutch couple as Knippenberg discovers more about how and why they went missing, but it struggles to maintain the necessary sense of dread, even though we know roughly how it worked out for them from the beginning.

The Serpent's setting is an ambitious one. It's difficult to recreate Bangkok, Hongkong, New Delhi, Bombay, Paris in the 70s, with a cast of actors doing accents ranging from French, Dutch-German, Indian to even Australian. It's a difficult thing to nail without characters coming off as stereotypes, and as a result, robbing the narrative of its gravitas. The accents don't distract from the show's core narrative, but there's something to be said about Edireweera's polished Indian accent for the character of Ajay Chowdhury, whether it's based on fact or is creative liberty.

As horrifying and jaw-dropping as Sobhraj's crimes were, "Serpent" fails to maintain the thrill of its drama through its eight-episode run. The first five installments make for a gripping crime series, but the final three-act more like a dull document of events. The narrative propulsion all but evaporates, and it is only through the strength of the performances, notably Rahim's, that the series remains watchable as it crawls to a conclusion.

But before it loses steam, "Serpent" is a wild ride. Set mostly in Thailand in the 1970s, the series is told from alternating points of view, jumping between Sobhraj; his accomplice and lover Marie-Andrée Leclerc (Jenna Coleman); his victims; and Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle), a junior diplomat from the Netherlands who becomes obsessed with taking down Sobhraj after he murders a young Dutch couple.

With slick costumes, gorgeous locales, and a bright cast, "Serpent" looks the part of a sleek true-crime thriller. The gem of the series is Rahim, who received a Golden Globe nomination this year for his performance in "Mauritanian" alongside Jodie Foster. Rahim has the natural good looks and magnetism that helped Sobhraj attract so many people. The actor turns on his charm during scenes of violence and terror, fully embracing the role of an unfathomably cruel monster.

The craft behind the Serpent – from the casting to the music to the hideously suspenseful setpieces – is superb.  What makes it unusual among serial killer dramas is that it cares deeply about the victims and their families as well as the detectives and the murderers. Like the obsessive sleuth Herman Knippenberg, writers Richard Warlow and Toby Finlay consider it their duty to make sure the dead are remembered and honored. Towards the end, like the gangsters in the final stretch of Goodfellas, Sobhraj becomes sloppy and decadent. His cloak of glamour is threadbare and soiled; his spell is broken; his would-be prey can finally see him for what he is. When you read the dedication in the closing seconds of the last episode, you are left with no doubt that while this empty man may be the star of the show, he is not its heart.

Final Score – [7.7/10]
Reviewed by – Ritika Kispotta
Follow her @KispottaRitika on Twitter (https://twitter.com/KispottaRitika)]

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