“The Serpent” is a true crime story that falls squarely in the stranger than fiction category.
Based on the crimes of French conman and serial killer Charles Sobhraj, Netflix’s “Serpent” (streaming now, ★★½ out of four) 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.
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.
Charles Sobraj (Tahar Rahim) and Marie-Andree Leclerc (Jenna Coleman) in "The Serpent." (Photo: Roland Neveu/BBC/Mammoth Screen/Netflix)
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.
Although the timeline jumps around, Sobhraj’s modus operandi quickly becomes clear: He befriends, drugs, robs and occasionally murders hapless hippies. These kids aren’t often missed, and Sobhraj lives on their traveler’s checks and evades the law by using their falsified passports. He finds Marie-Andrée in India, but seduces – rather than scams – her, slowly bringing her into his world of crime. After the Dutch couple’s family writes to Knippenberg, and the Thai police offer no help, he investigates their disappearances with the help of his wife Angela (Ellie Bamber). A cat-and-mouse game unfurls while occasional flashbacks reveal the true horror of Sobhraj’s life and deeds.
Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle) and Angela Knippenberg (Ellie Bamber) in "The Serpent." (Photo: Roland Neveu/BBC/Mammoth Screen/Netflix)
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. At one point, Sobhraj beats a woman in broad daylight, in the middle of a crowd, but the onlookers pay no attention, assuming their genteel neighbor is just horsing around.
While Sobhraj’s story made headlines, he is not as well known to younger generations. The series’ writers do a fine job keeping the mystery alive for those unfamiliar with the case.
Charles Sobhraj (Tahar Rahim) in "The Serpent." (Photo: Roland Neveu/BBC/Mammoth Screen/Netflix)
But as much as “Serpent” benefits from its shocking real-life story, it also falls victim to it. The last three episodes lose their momentum so significantly in part because the real hunt for Sobhraj slowed to a crawl. The final half-hour jumps through several decades and developments (and unfortunate aging makeup) in a rushed, anticlimactic conclusion, even if it remains true to the story.
Fewer episodes, more creative license and fewer twists would have helped condense “Serpent” into a consistently stirring series.
But unfortunately, this “Serpent” quickly loses its bite.
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