The Serpent, the review of the Netflix miniseries on Charles Sobhraj

The Serpent, the review of the Netflix miniseries on Charles Sobhraj

The Serpent

Netflix continues the path of crime, undertaken with other series such as Narcos, El Chapo and the like, with the eight-episode miniseries The Serpent which tells the little-known story of a 1970s serial killer who committed numerous murders of men and women along what some called The Hippie Trail in Southeast Asia. His name is Charles Sobhraj (currently incarcerated in Nepal) and he became famous for his actions characterized by an almost unlimited cruelty, but which always followed a certain logic. These factors would seem to be a keystone for a genre that seeks ways to understand our times and ourselves in the stories of the past. Let's see together how the new miniseries created by Mammoth Screen shows with this review, free of spoilers.

The Serpent: the chase of the cat and the mouse in real life

Charles Sobhraj (Tahar Rahim) was a true sociopath, however he stood out as this sociopathy was truly unique leading him not to kill for pleasure or to experience the thrill of murder, but only to keep his lifestyle constant, erasing the lives of those he believed to be. below him. With the assistance of his girlfriend Marie-Andrée Leclerc (Jenna Coleman) and his ally Ajay Chowdhury (Amesh Edireweera), Sobhraj has gained the trust of people the world would hardly miss: travelers to Southeast Asia. which could also disappear without warning. He would have led them to believe that he was an ally before stealing their belongings and their identities, using the passports in the possession of travelers to move from one place to another in Asia and pursue his commercial and economic plans. Sobhraj was eventually convicted in 2003 of killing a dozen people, but many more had probably died.

If Sobhraj is the mouse, Dutch Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle) is the cat who in The Serpent becomes the main driving force needed to capture the serial killer (with the help of his wife Angela, played by Ellie Bamber, and Tim McInnerny as a man named Paul Siemons). Knippenberg was a Dutch diplomat involved in the investigation into the disappearance of two of his compatriots, Henk Bintanja and Cornelia Hemker. The first episodes of The Serpent set the tone for the entire season: on the one hand we have a calculating criminal and on the other hand his pursuer in search of justice who is forced to climb mountains of international bureaucracy and diplomacy just to stop him. >

A thriller that is not a thriller

However, contrary to what it might seem, we are not dealing with a thriller or a thriller. The story has very little mystery and focuses above all on the psychological understanding of the character of Sobhraj who manages to spend a lot of time with his beloved Leclerc who, in turn, alternates moments in which he fears the murderous streak of his partner with moments in which she is so taken by him that she allows him to show all his wickedness even in his presence. Removed this aspect, then what remains? Not much unfortunately.

One of the most obvious problems is the maddening narrative structure that not only jumps between Knippenberg and Sobhraj with unexpected inconsistency, but bounces over time so abruptly as to make it difficult to find a dramatic or mysterious element in the episodes. The director, Tom Shankland, and the screenwriter, Richard Warlow, try to give impetus to the plot, but it moves within an indefinite time frame trying to offer as much background as possible or to recreate the last days of one of his victims breaking up the general story and confusing the vision even more. There have been times when we have had to pause a few episodes to look for more details on Sobhraj's killing spree, and it's almost never a good sign when you need to inquire externally to understand what a show simply fails to deliver on a practical level. .

We are increasingly seeing a modern trend on the part of television writers to build a storyline that has a kind of chronological playfulness, as if that makes projects like The Serpent more interesting and engaging. Unfortunately in this case nothing drains the tension more than the lack of pure narrative cohesion. This leads to another problem purely of characterization of the characters because the series fails to make the viewer understand if Sobhraj was more a genius or an opportunist, without ever showing the charisma that this man must have had to make his way through the complicated life. .

Stunning settings, but poorly defined characters

Towards the end of the season, we see a brief excerpt from Sobhraj's past life in France and this is necessary to explain the reasons a little better which led the protagonist to start his turbulent and dangerous life. In this case it is particularly frustrating that Rahim was finally allowed to show off all of his talent only in the last two episodes. The protagonist's performance, in fact, is always extremely controlled and impassive so as to seem almost robotic. You never feel Sobhraj's communicative power, his invincible charm or his sixth sense to avoid capture. So you can't really understand what Marie-Andrée, known as Monique, played by a good Jenna Coleman, sees in him, or why she agrees to submit to her poisonous plans.

Billy Howle himself, too, who is often placed at the center of the scene with the aim of not glorifying a narcissistic killer, fails to reveal the charisma and psychological acumen that Knippenberg's character employed to join the pieces of the numerous naive and idealistic victims, hoping to have found a healthy and reliable job in a rather dangerous and poor part of the Earth. The continuous narrative interruptions certainly didn't help as in the end we only observe a horizontal progression of the character without any particular characterizing flicker.

The scenes of carefree and high-spirited hippie life at Kanit House, the Bangkok condo where Charles and Charles live. Marie-Andrée in which they idle, swim and party endlessly with a moody soundtrack by Serge Gainsbourg form a nice visual contrast to Knippenberg and his wife Angela, a skilled linguist, and their focused and careful investigations. Even the travel scenes by land are evocative thanks to the re-enactment of a bygone era, when Afghanistan, Kashmir, Iran and Pakistan were exotic stopping points on the hazy journey towards eastern enlightenment. The Serpent, in fact, is a technically flawless series and this may be enough for those who prefer to be entranced by the images, rather than the story.


In conclusion the questions we arises at the beginning of The Serpent remain even after eight episodes and that might be fine if the presence of these question marks were balanced by a constant presence of a Narcos-style tension or the like, but sadly it isn't. Charles Sobhraj was a monster, a man who took what he wanted from people he considered to be mere pieces he disposable of his he chessboard. This basic aspect, however, is deduced through simple external research because the miniseries does not explore it convincingly.

The Serpent constantly fights against its own potential, taking the path of dubious structural decisions and superficial understanding. of its subject. What can be seen from the making of these eight episodes is the lack of organization behind the desire to tell the dramatic story and all this is amplified by an incessant chronological cut that confuses not only the characterization of the characters, but also their function within. of the show.

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