The eight-episode Netflix docudrama “The Serpent” just might hold the all-time record for number of flashbacks and flash-forwards in a limited series, as we continually zip a couple of years ahead or a few months back along the mid-1970s timeline — a frustrating and utterly unnecessary and wildly overused device that consistently works against an otherwise fascinating, exotic, lurid period-piece true-crime story about a suave, identity-switching serial killer who makes Tom Ripley seem like an amateur.
Serpentine (I see what you did there) storyline concerns aside, “The Serpent” is an effectively unsettling, fictionalized telling of the incredible and horrific series of kidnappings and murders orchestrated by one Charles Sobhraj, played to suave and oily perfection by Tahar Rahim, the brilliant French actor last seen in “The Mauritanian.” (For most of the story, Sobhraj operates under the alias of Alain Gautier, so we’ll refer to him as Alain moving forward.) The story opens in Bangkok, 1975, with Alain clearly the Man as he glides around a poolside party at an apartment building filled with bohemian hippie types, most of them from Western Europe or America — and all of them looking to let their freak flags fly and extend the 1960s vibe as far as possible.
Jenna Coleman is Alain’s girlfriend Monique, a French-Canadian beauty who looks like she stepped off the pages of Vogue magazine. They’re a strikingly handsome couple and they’re clearly in love with one another, and when they steal off to an apartment in the complex and close the door behind them, it appears they’re about to have a midday tryst — but then Alain crushes some pills and stirs them into a drink intended for the sweat-soaked man in the bedroom who is in a great deal of pain and should be taken to the hospital. Not to worry, says Alain, as Monique looks on with detachment. This medicine will make you feel better.
Spoiler alert: No, it won’t.
Born in Saigon to a Vietnamese mother and an Indian father, raised in Paris by his mother and her French husband, Alain has become a chameleon who travels from country to country under the guise of being a rare gems dealer with connections everywhere as he preys upon well-off young travelers who are playing at living the simple, carefree life but often have thick stacks of travelers’ checks and other valuables in their bags. With the help of Monique, who adds to Alain’s veneer of respectability, and Alain’s fiercely loyal second, Ajay (Amesh Edireweera), Alain works his charms on a number of travelers, takes them under his wing — and waits for the right moment to poison them, rob them of their belongings and their passports (which he alters and uses for his own devices), and then dump the bodies. That this actually transpired — though the dialogue is imagined and some scenarios are fictional creations — makes it all the more chilling.
While Alain and his accomplices travel from Hong Kong to Bangkok to Nepal to Paris on various nefarious missions, we have a parallel storyline involving the investigation of the crimes, which starts when the parents of a couple from the Netherlands that has gone missing in Thailand contact the embassy in Bangkok, drawing the attention of a fast-rising but relatively low-level diplomat. Herman Knippenberg is no detective, as his boss and various police authorities constantly remind him, but he’s practically the only one determined to find out what happened to the young couple — and among the first to piece together the puzzle and realize there’s been a series of killings and they could all be connected. Billy Howle does terrific work as the everyman Knippenberg, who surprises even himself with his dogged determination and his willingness to take risks, and Ellie Bamber is equally strong as Knippenberg’s wife, Angela, who supports her husband and helps him on the case for as long as she can, until she sees it ruining his career and tearing them apart.
Filmed on location in and around Bangkok and in studios in the United Kingdom, “The Serpent” is a visual feast; whether the story is in Thailand, Kathmandu, Hong Kong, Delhi or Paris, we believe the locale and the time period. Directors Hans Herbots and Tom Shankland and writers Richard Wardlow and Toby Finlay steer clear of glorifying Alain, but we can understand how he was able to work his dark magic on not only his victims, but on Monique, who continues to love him even as she knows he’s taking her to the depths of hell, and Ajay, a straight-up psychopath who mistakenly believes Alain is the only person in the world to ever care about him. At the end of the series, we catch up with the lives of the real-life people in the story (hey, there’s Knippenberg, good for him!) and learn the now 76-year-old Alain/Charles is serving a life sentence in Nepal. May the Serpent never be free.