Review of Netflix well-produced true crime TV series, ‘The Serpent’

June 20, 2021 Mario Bautista 644 views

‘THE Serpent’ is a true story that seems stranger than fiction. The title refers to Charles Sobraj aka Alain Gautier, who ruthlessly robbed and killed so many European tourists in the mid-70s.
The first thing we realized after watching it is that the story doesn’t have to be stretched to eight hour-long episodes that become so tedious. A good writer and director can easily digest it into four or five more substantial and quicker paced episodes.

One good thing about the show is that it’s shot on location in so many gorgeous and exotic places like India, Thailand, France and Nepal in the Himalayas. Charles/Alain is a goodlooking man of Vietnamese and Indian descent (played by Tahar Rahim of “The Mauritanian”).

When the series opens, he is posing as a gem dealer, but his actual modus operandi is drugging and murdering backpacking Europeans in Bangkok. Charles is clearly a monster who regarsd people as disposable just so he can maintain his expensive lifestyle.

He ruthlessly burns the dead bodies of his victims then steals their passports that he and his beautiful French Canadian girlfriend, Marie Andree Leclerc (Jenna Coleman, the title roler in Queen Victoria miniseries), use in changing their identities while globe-trotting. He has an Indian accomplice named Ajay (Amesh Edireweera), who, like him, also has no conscience in killing people.

In 1975, a Dutch diplomat, Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle),who’s stationed in Bangkok, gets curious about a missing Dutch couple, Willem Bloem and Helena Dekker, who went missing after staying in the apartment of Charles. He starts to seriously investigate what really happened.

Another prospective victim of Charles and Monique is a young French guy, Dominique (Fabien Frankel), who realizes what Charles is doing to him. Another couple, Nadine (Mathilde Warnier) and Remi (Gregoire Isvarine), help him escape and return to France. Herman gets to talk with Nadine and Remi and what he learns from them helps him piece together the extent of Charles’ crimes.

Herman gathers all the evidence he can get with the help of Nadine but the diplomats of other countries and the Thai police itself are reluctant to help him in prosecuting Charles who seems to be able to successfully anticipate every step they make. A big breakthrough happens when the Bangkok Post writes about the crimes perpetrated by Charles and the Interpol gets interested in his intricate web of heinous crimes, issuing an international arrest warrant for his arrest in various countries.

You’d think Charles would be easily apprehended by then, but no, the show and his freedom both still stretch to kingdom come. You can really feel all the infuriating padding and by the time we get to the 7th episode, the show has truly lost its momentum for us. Our interest in this very slow-paced show has waned and it took us a month before we got the energy to resume watching it again.

One thing that turned us off is the show’s shuffling structure. It’s just not non-linear but the time periods tend to shift so frequently and so needlessly that it can sometimes be quite confusing. The nonstop cross-cutting from one location and one time frame to another actually just muddled the narrative that it lacks cohesion.

The story gets stretched so much that the characters are shown getting old. Herman gets divorced from his very pretty wife, Angela (Ellie Bamber), who starts as a very supportive wife but eventually gets tired because of Herman’s dogged obsession with Charles and his heinous crimes.

Monique gets her comeuppance and died of the big C. As for the serial killer that Charles is, he’s still alive up to now in some jail. And his Indian assistant never got arrested.

There’s no doubt the show is well produced, with authentic period production design and costumes at the time of the Hippies. Tahar Rahim as the anti-hero Charles has a strange on-screen charisma but the way his character is written and the way his own Asian mother describes him, he was a born sociopath, just like his own father.

As such, there is not much range to his performance that somehow suffers from underplaying. Faring better is British actor Billy Howle (“The Seagull”) as Herman, the driving force who wages a personal campaign to capture Charles who is literally getting away with murder. In his efforts to seek justice, Herman has to tackle the indifference of his own boss and other foreign diplomats and hurdle all the red tape thrown his way in his obsession to stop Charles.

Giving superb support is Jenna Coleman as Monique who is torn between enabling and being repulsed by her cold-blooded partner’s crimes. Her final scene on a wheelchair when she confronts Charles in prison is very touching.

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