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Review: The Serpent  

Henry Wallis reviews the latest BBC drama that follows a globe-trotting murderer during the mid-70s.

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Editor’s Note: the following review includes spoilers

The BBC’s latest drama, led by Tahar Rahim and Jenna Coleman, has been praised for its portrayal of the real life murderous duo who left a trail of victims throughout Asia in the 1970’s - but is it any good?

The Serpent is certainly one of the most ambitious projects that the BBC has released in recent years. How do you tell the story of the life and capture of murderer and master of disguise Charles Sobhraj in a TV show that lasts 8 hours, when the events themselves took place over several decades? The result is more flashbacks than Lost, and time jumps which left many viewers dazed and confused. And it’s clear that the BBC had high hopes for The Serpent, as shown by seeing that the first episode premiering premiered on New Years day in the 9pm time slot, which has previously been held by the likes of Sherlock and Dracula.

Where The Serpent thrives is in its portrayal of the calculating and chaotic Charles Sonhraj, played by the excellent Tahar Rahim whose charming yet sinister aura results in a fascinating character study. Charles' methods of killing involved befriending young tourists and spiking their drinks with lethal drugs. The innocent tourists would then show symptoms of illness and Charles would offer his hospitality and care, proceeding to then give them more lethal drugs disguised as medicine in his apartment. After these backpackers became very sick, Charles would then take them to an unknown location to steal their passports and money, before murdering them in cold blood. It’s a disturbing modus, and presented in the show as such. We rarely see the murders themselves, yet a great deal of tension comes from the sense of foreboding and dread as Charles taunts and converses with his helpless victim before their death.

Charles is joined by the loyal yet helpless Marie-Andree Leclerc (played by the versatile Jenna Coleman) who finds herself falling for Charles, and his manipulative and murderous lifestyle - and later comes to regret it. Whilst we follow the storyline of these not-so-star-crossed lovers, we also revel in the determination of Herman Knippenberg, a diplomat who becomes aware of the slew of missing persons cases and leads us through the nightmare as the show’s protagonist. He faces opposition from everyone around him which makes his character that more likable. These two storylines, one of the hunter and the hunted, keeps the fast pace of the show and makes it especially engaging.

Yet as mentioned, many viewers were left confused by the flashbacks and flashforwards between the two narratives, which kept changing faster than Boris’s rules for Christmas. In the main bulk of the show, such cross cutting between the two storylines is not a major issue. Yet it is in the final episode which single-handedly covers decades of history in the case, that builds to a sense of unfulfilled potential. This episode consists of multiple time jumps which are especially jarring, and perhaps the show would have benefited with an extra episode or run time to cover the remaining years of the cat and mouse game that had been going on for so long.

As expected, the finale features the duo being caught (or not, it’s more complicated than that) and although a great deal of the episode is spent in prison, more time would have enabled a greater exploration into the effect of the case on Knippenberg’s marriage. This is because the separation felt especially sudden and we could have gained a greater insight on Ellie Bamber (who plays Angela Knippernburg) 's view of their marriage. Perhaps a conversation with her mother when she went to live with her family after the case had ended. Furthermore, the frequent time jumps lead to the audience witnessing Knippenberg going from an especially damaged state of mind to possessing a much calmer nature only a few years later. Greater insight into this transition and seeing how he recovered after the exhausting effect of the case would have been especially interesting to view. In addition to this, I think there was a great deal of unfulfilled potential for how the relationship between Monique and Charles ended. We certainly saw a much tenser relationship develop in the final episodes yet when we finally meet Monique, she is especially reflective on her time with Charles when conversing with him. A greater exploration into how this more reflective and understanding mindset occurred for Monique’s character would have been especially beneficial.

Perhaps Charles' escape and life after not being found guilty by the courts could have been explored more. So much room for more exploration gives the feeling that the final episode felt rushed. So I believe that more episodes could have given the audience a greater insight into the effect of Charles' killings on those who investigated it and those who were involved with him.

Or maybe, my curiosity for more information about Charles Sonhraj could be seen as a strength of the show. After all, I was engaged in its characters and narrative and left wanting to know more. The stunning multitude of locations, combined with the intriguing (yet slightly confusing) narrative and fantastic performances, makes The Serpent an especially unique period piece. It’s certainly an entertaining and dark insight into one of the most interesting figures of the 20th century. So I’d certainly recommend you watch the show but watch out for who’s making your tea…

Editor’s Note: The Serpent is available to watch on BBC iPlayer

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