Don’t Sip That Tea

International true-crime miniseries The Serpent follows the trail of a serial killer of hippies.

No wonder they call him The Serpent. Charles Sobhraj (Tahar Rahim), the main character of Netflix’s captivating true-crime miniseries of the same name, has a strange look about him. His jet-black hair has an artificial-looking dullness, as if it were a wig. But the distinguishing feature of Sobhraj’s presence is his icy, dead-pan facial expression. Whether he’s with his companion Marie-Andrée Leclerc (British actor Jenna Coleman) or one of the innumerable travelers they encounter, Sobhraj invariably regards people with a cold, predatory detachment, as if waiting for exactly the right moment to strike.

That first impression is quite accurate. When we meet Charles in Bangkok in 1975, his career as a drug dealer, swindling gem wholesaler, and serial killer is well under way. Assisted by French Canadian Marie-Andrée and their Indian henchman Ajay Chowdhury (the UK’s Amesh Edireweera) in their headquarters at the Kanit House apartments, Charles makes a habit of chatting up naïve young backpackers traipsing along South Asia’s Hippie Trail, and inviting them to stay at his place. Once there, Charles surreptitiously doses them with medications that make them ill and helpless, then dispatches them by various nasty means, after collecting their cash, valuables, and passports. Business is brisk, and the screenplay – by Richard Warlow and Toby Finlay – is mind-bogglingly elliptical.

Oh, a couple of hippies might complain to the Thai authorities about their missing friends’ suspicious absence, but slippery Charles has moles inside the Bangkok police to make sure the investigations go nowhere. And besides, the long-haired, drug-taking farangs are notorious for their spaced-out inattentiveness. Who knows what they do and where they go, and who really cares?

At least one official takes serious notice, however. Herman Knippenberg (England’s Billy Howle), an ambassadorial aide at the Netherlands Embassy, is bothered by the mysterious disappearance of a pair of Dutch nationals. As time goes by he and his wife Angela (another British thespian, Ellie Bamber) become obsessed by the ever-growing list of vanished young tourists – despite his boss’ impatient irritation with Knip’s amateur detective work. Herman is the sort who never lets go.

As the eight-hour BBC co-prod miniseries unfolds we begin to get a picture of who Hotchand Bhawnani Gurumukh Charles Sobhraj really is. Born in Saigon to a Vietnamese mother and an Indian businessman father, whose breakup ushered in a hard time for the “half-caste,” young Charles learned to live by his wits, and now harbors a murderous resentment of “rich kids” as well as a skilled proficiency in the dark arts. The stolen passports and travelers’ checks allow him and his girlfriend to assume an array of phony identities as they flit around Paris, Chiang Mai, Kathmandu, Mumbai, Varanasi, Karachi, Hong Kong, the Afghan outback, and other locales. Following the Serpent’s path is like peeling an onion. There’s always another layer, and another.

French actor Rahim, seen recently in The Mauritanian, steadfastly maintains his snakelike sense of menace in a performance of subtle gestures rather than grand histrionics. Hannibal Lecter, Charles Manson, and Dracula all spring to mind as we try to categorize Charles, who in real life committed at least 12 murders (Sobhraj is currently serving a life sentence in Nepal). But the most convincing analogy is probably that of the Thuggees, the ruthless cult of thieves and assassins who preyed on travelers in mid-19th-century India. Rahim’s Charles has the ideal demeanor for such bloodthirstiness. Supporting honors to the large cast under the direction of Tom Shankland and Hans Herbots – notably Coleman, Edireweera, Howle, Tim McInnerny (as a sympathetic diplomat), and Cathy Min Jung as Charles’ bitter, weary mother, sitting in her Paris apartment. Fine location work. 

Charles Sobhraj is such a charmless, cold lounge lizard that it’s hard to imagine how anyone could be taken in by his obvious hustle. But it really happened, because his victims were stoned and careless. Charles probably couldn’t get away with that today. Cops have gotten smarter, controls tighter. Bon voyage!

Now showing on Netflix

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