The Serpent review: Tahar Rahim's magnetic portrayal of Charles Sobhraj ensures Netflix series is bearable
Tahar Rahim's stone-cold, opaque performance in The Serpent is the only redeeming factor in a show that is easily forgettable.
There's an interesting anecdote about how Christian Bale based his performance of Patrick Bateman on a Tom Cruise interview with David Letterman from 1999. Bale caught on to what he described as Cruise's 'intense friendliness, but with nothing behind the eyes' nature. In the 2000 film, Bale's character passionately doles out of pages worth of trivia, without the slightest bit of humanity or feeling. It's hard not to be reminded of Patrick Bateman, while watching Tahar Rahim's version of the real-life serial killer, Charles Sobhraj, as he mercilessly drugs, robs and then (in some cases) murders his victims -- who are mostly all 'Westerners' backpacking through South Asia during the 70s. Rahim's Sobhraj internalises his reptilian alias to perfection, meticulously weighing his words, actions, gestures while approaching these unsuspecting travellers, most of them still in their 20s. He sheds his skin, depending on who he's surrounded by. Every other person he meets, he pronounces a 'friend' with a mechanical warmth.
Charles Sobhraj's modus operandi is well-documented, and yet it's engrossing to watch it unfold in the first couple of episodes. Sobhraj (Rahim), living under the alias of Alain Gautier in Bangkok with associates Monique (Jenna Coleman) and Ajay (Amesh Edireweera), carefully chooses his to-be victims by playing the part of a gems dealer. He wins their trust by giving them a place to stay, and when their guard drops, he drugs them and steals their valuables. Many people seen partying with him, mysteriously fall sick, he pretends to try to 'cure' them by further drugging them, finally killing them. It's a simple plan, but there's a beauty to which how effortless he makes it look.
Rahim's Sobhraj is sharp and efficient. He doesn't waste manoeuvres; his brain almost instinctively moves on to the next target, when one part of the plan is successful. Rahim, who seems to be having a moment in this year's acting categories for his role in The Mauritanian, is absolutely stone-cold opaque in this one. Nothing betrays what's going on in his head, and each line of dialogue (especially in the first two episodes) is delivered with an extraordinary light touch.
The Serpent's setting is an ambitious one. It's difficult to recreate Bangkok, Hongkong, New Delhi, Bombay, Paris in the 70s, with a cast of actors doing accents ranging from French, Dutch-German, Indian to even Australian. It's a difficult thing to nail without characters coming off as stereotypes, and as a result, robbing the narrative off its gravitas. The accents don't distract from the show's core narrative, but there's obviously something to be said about Edireweera's polished Indian accent for the character of Ajay Chowdhury, whether it's based on fact or is creative liberty.
The show begins rather interestingly with the narrative cutting in the past between Sobhraj's crimes, to its clues being uncovered by a Dutch diplomat, Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle). It works for the first two episodes, and it almost looks like a choice that forces the creators to commit to this style for the rest of the show. In the first two episodes, while we watch the crimes being committed for the first time, from different vantage points, there's a perverse thrill to the proceedings. While being severely disgusted by the cruelty taking place on screen, some might even be forced to admit how well-oiled the whole operation is.
On the other end, Howle's Knippenberg gets the short end of the stick, with the role of a tenacious diplomat, who gets into all kinds of trouble for simply going out of his way to do the right thing. It would be unfair to judge Howle's performance based on his one-note characterisation of the idealist inside a broken system. It's an archetype, and the writers do nothing to separate Howle's character from the thousands like this. Especially against Charles Sobhraj's dripping-with-menace face, something Tahir Rahim aces for a large part of the series.
It's only in the third episode where the show's cross-cutting screenplay, between two timelines, begins to appear too simplistic. Almost like a cause-and-effect approach, where X led to Y. As the noose tightens around Sobhraj's neck, thanks to Knippenberg's tireless efforts, the show becomes a more straight-forward 'biopic'. There are some rather blunt choices like the use of Bob Segers' 'Katmandu' as an introduction to when the action cuts to... you guessed it, Kathmandu. The editing seems almost bored by the fifth episode, where a scene where Knippenberg says, "I don't know what to do" is followed by him sitting against a different background, furiously smoking a cigarette and gulping a scotch. Almost as mechanical as Sobhraj's warmth, except it isn't intentional here.
For a show, that partially blames Sobhraj's sociopathic behaviour on the racist slurs he was subjected to during his life in Paris, it's ironic how it treats its non-white characters. Ajay, the only non-white member of the primary cast of the show along with Sobhraj, is relegated to being the errand boy, with only the odd line of dialogue of where he comes from. He just exists to up the exotic quotient of the show. Much like the Thai locals depicted in the show, all of whom are shown as disposable characters like secretaries, vegetable vendors, cabbies and cops. For a show primarily set in South Asia for a majority of its running time, not a single Asian character gets the dignity of having a family or having a life outside the breadth of the show's narrative.
By the end, The Serpent loses all its sharpness, and begins to resemble a serial killer show birthed by an overzealous Netflix algorithm. However, in the process, it gives us at least three desi actors appearing in brief cameos. Pravesh Rana, as the Nepal police chief, Darshan Jariwala, as the general manager at a five-star hotel, and Alyy Khan, who plays the role of DSP Tuli of the Delhi Police. However, it will be Rahim, whose turn as Sobhraj will be remembered long after this otherwise show is forgotten.
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