The most astonishing thing about The Serpent, the recent BBC "miniseries," is that it is basically true. It takes some dramatic liberties filling in the gaps between known facts, and in the name of respect for the living and the dead, but it is commendably up front about this - literally, in a written disclaimer at the beginning of each episode - and its choices in this regard seem ethical.
The title appears to reference the Serpent in the Garden of Eden - the source of temptation who corrupted the innocent and ruined everything. In this analogy, it is the "Hippie Trail" travelled across Asia by thousands of naïve young Western tourists from the late 1950s until the end of the 70s that is the modern equivalent of Eden, and Charles Sobhraj, the serial killer who preyed on them, is presented as the Serpent who spoiled it all.
To be honest, the analogy is rather stretched. The series offers a rather romanticised picture of the "Hippie Trail." While many have happy memories of their time there, it was usually far more squalid and dangerous than it is portrayed in The Serpent. The main route took the tourists across Turkey and Iran to Afghanistan, and then across to Nepal or down to India, with some going on to Thailand. The tolerant, even benevolent attitudes of the Monarchies of Iran, Afghanistan, Nepal, and Thailand to Western travellers led the more inexperienced youngsters to assume these exotic lands were something they were not. Rejecting the consumerism of the West, they saw the East as an alternative, not realising that the locals welcomed them because they were part of that consumerism and needed their tourist dollars.
This is a point well made by the script of The Serpent, in which contempt for the ignorance of the young Westerners is put into the mouth of Sobhraj himself. We cannot be certain if he really felt this way, but many local people did. At the same time, many of the youngsters wanted a feeling of adventure without really grasping how poor and unstable some of the places they went really were. Those whose idealistic rejection of money led them to travel without it were especially vulnerable. One cannot help wondering if there are a great many more who never came back whose fate, unlike that of Sobhraj's confirmed victims, remains unknown.
It is perhaps a missed opportunity that The Serpent never really engages with this broader context, but that is not what Sobhraj's story was about. For most of the series, Sobhraj's lifestyle is shown as more mainstream than "counterculture." He poses as an apparently successful small businessman on the fringes of the expatriate community in cosmopolitan Bangkok. Since his motives are primarily financial, most of his victims are not actual "hippies," who would be less likely to have cash or the much coveted traveller's cheques, just naïve young people.
So we end up with a relatively straightforward, if superior, police procedural - or rather a belated police procedural. Once the various police forces got their act together and began to co-operate, it was not a difficult case. The scandal is how long they took to do so. It is implied that they might never have done it all but for the tenacity of a somewhat obsessive junior diplomat at the Netherlands Embassy.
This explains why, with the wonderful benefits of hindsight, Sobhraj was so blatant in his criminal activities - his association with most of his victims was open - and why he seems to have taken few precautions. The fact that he was not being investigated led him to believe that he was invulnerable and he became increasingly confident, even careless. So he left a trail that was relatively easy to follow when he finally did become the object of active investigation.
If all this seems incredible, it is made credible by Tahar Rahim's chilling performance as Sobhraj. Beneath his very superficial charm, there seems to be a will of steel. Quite deliberately, he reduces those around him to a state of subservience by suggesting a hidden power he does not in fact possess but which is enough to instil an advanced state of paranoia. This is particularly well illustrated by the case of Dominique Renelleau, played by Fabien Frankel. There is real tension about the scenes in which he tries to "escape" from the absent Sobhraj in spite of the fact that any rational analysis of his situation should have assured him he had little to fear once he left Sobhraj's home. He obviously believed - and at this point the viewer might believe - that Sobhraj was literally capable of anything.
It is only as we get to know Sobhraj that it is revealed, gradually, that he is far less impressive than he first appears. Eventually we come to see that he is no more than a needy neglected child who has picked up a few tricks in the course of a previously undistinguished career as a petty criminal and whose apparent fearlessness is no more than ignorance. He enjoys having power over others precisely because he feels so powerless. He is in fact rather pathetic.
This realisation comes to us mainly through the eyes of his besotted mistress, Quebecoise Marie-Andree Leclerc, played by Jenna Coleman. She gives a clever performance, even if it seems unlikely that a girl who looks like her would suffer from low self esteem simply because she has a slight scar on her leg, and to the end we remain unsure whether Leclerc is his accomplice, perhaps even his enabler, or his most frightened victim. It is possible that the actual Leclerc was not sure herself. She could easily have convinced herself of either.
It is a great tribute to Coleman's abilities that she retains this ambiguity, because the fact that Leclerc is played by an actress with such a generally likeable image would otherwise incline us to be more sympathetic to her than the original deserves. This may be why she accepted a role that seems so far outside her usual comfort zone. Although the subsequent careers of "The Doctor's Companions" from Doctor Who tend to be very discouraging, Coleman has built a very impressive curriculum vitae. Here she makes the deliberate choice to stretch her acting muscles, and the risk pays off. While hers is not the most showy part, it may be that The Serpent will be best remembered as another important step in her rise to great things.
Tim McInnerny, a million miles from Lord Percy in Blackadder, has fun as a Belgian security specialist with more than a hint of darkness about him. If the notion of "Belgian Black Ops" sounds laughable these days, remember that in the 1970s Belgium's involvement in the Congo was still a recent memory and the Belgians had been considered ruthless even by the other Colonial Powers. People brought up in that tradition would still have been common in their public service. It should also be noted that, with war raging over much of the rest of the Indochinese Peninsula, Bangkok was a rough town at the heart of international politicking. This is another relevant theme that is mentioned but not really developed in The Serpent.
Mathilde Warnier is charming as Sobhraj's terrified neighbour who nevertheless discovers her inner Nancy Drew. Amesh Edireweera is very effective, demonstrating, in true Elmore Leonard style, how even an obvious loser can be still threatening, as Sobhraj's right hand man. In an oddly moving guest role in an episode set in Nepal, model Lucan Gillespie sums up the beauty of the ideals that motivated the young travellers and then the tragic crushing of their innocence.
The characters of the heroic diplomat and his wife are less convincing. This is no fault of the accomplished young actors who play them, Billy Howle and Ellie Bamber. The script is perhaps too respectful of them, so Howle's descent into obsession seems out of character and their marriage problems perfunctory. Surely a trained professional diplomat in a high flyer's post would know how to keep cool when faced with difficulties? It also must be said that their lifestyle seems more like that of millionaires than salaried officials. If they really live like that, then sign us all up for the Royal Netherlands Diplomatic Service.
That said, the realistic evocation of the tawdry glamour of the 1970s is one of the series' great strengths. What seems to be footage from the time is intercut cleverly and convincingly with the well researched fruits of considerable effort on the part of the design, costume, and props departments. Someone clearly put a lot of effort into getting it all right and succeeded.
That kitschy Seventies aesthetic is also apparent in the old style airport departures board in the lower left corner of the screen that enables the viewer to follow the non-linear timeline which throws the Aristotelian Unities completely out the window. This potentially annoying structural device actually works well in The Serpent because it allows the narrative to show the crimes and the investigation simultaneously, while gradually revealing more of Sobhraj's backstory. However, the viewer has to keep a careful eye on that departures board if it is all to make sense.
Overall, The Serpent is a well written, well produced, and well acted suspense thriller. As such, it succeeds brilliantly. Yet one cannot help feeling it could have been something more.
The time and place provide colourful background to the suspense, but perhaps they should have been the real story. In the end it was not Sobhraj and people like him who killed the 'Hippie Trail.' They were always there, and their descendants probably still are, an ever present danger but not an existential threat. What The Serpent does not make clear is that times were already changing when Sobhraj was at the height of his illusory power. The Age of Aquarius was delayed, and meanwhile the young Westerners were growing up and had to make a living. Those who had gone East had seen there was no Nirvana there, even if they had enjoyed their extended holidays. The Wars in South East Asia and the fall of the Afghan Monarchy in the early Seventies were the beginning of the end of the "Hippie Trail," and the fall of the Iranian Monarchy and the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan at the end of the decade finished it off completely. There remains a gap in the market for a drama that explores both the folly and the naïve beauty of the Western dream of the East more comprehensively than The Serpent did.
Review by John Winterson Richards
John Winterson Richards is the author of the 'Xenophobe's Guide to the Welsh' and the 'Bluffer's Guide to Small Business,' both of which have been reprinted more than twenty times in English and translated into several other languages. He was editor of the latest Bluffer's Guide to Management and, as a freelance writer, has had over 500 commissioned articles published.
He is also the author of ‘How to Build Your Own Pyramid: A Practical Guide to Organisational Structures' and co-author of 'The Context of Christ: the History and Politics of Rome and Judea, 100 BC - 33 AD,' as well as the author of several novels under the name Charles Cromwell, all of which can be downloaded from Amazon. John has also written over 100 reviews for Television Heaven.
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Published on January 25th, 2021. Written by John Winterson Richards for Television Heaven.