Programmes about serial killers have an awkward problem. They don’t want to sensationalise the crimes or appear to celebrate the murderer, because that would be tasteless. But if the film-makers were honest, they would admit that the crimes were sensational and the murderer was fascinating, otherwise why would they be bothering to make a drama out of it?
This dilemma hamstrung The Serpent from the start. By the accounts of many who met him, Charles Sobhraj was a charismatic figure. That was what enabled him to lure Western backpackers into his orbit – and then to their deaths – on the South-East Asian hippie trail in the 1970s. Yet somehow The Serpent wiped any trace of that charisma from his character. We were left with a blank space, a mannequin in brown-tinted aviators, a man so boring that the main thought milling around your brain when you watched episode one was: how did he get a girlfriend as hot as Jenna Coleman?
This was not the fault of Tahar Rahim, the actor who plays him, because Rahim has given fine performances elsewhere (see 2018’s The Looming Tower). He had clearly been instructed to play him this way. But then the drama tried to have its cake and eat it, by chucking in a scene in which Sobhraj and his fiancee, Marie-Andrée Leclerc (Coleman) were shot in a slow-motion swagger as they arrived at an airport, cool music playing on the soundtrack. The ’70s styling – all those flares and big collars – is top notch, as is the cinematography bathing everything in an orange fug.