The real problem for the makers of true crime dramas is striking a balance between engaging storytelling and remaining respectful to the real-life people portrayed on-screen, specifically the victims.
Recent true crime series have, rightly, steered away from making the perpetrator the show’s central character. In ITV series White House Farm, Freddie Fox turned in an acting tour de force as real-life killer and master-manipulator Jeremy Bamber, but the narrative’s focus remained squarely on DS Stan Jones (Mark Addy), a rebellious officer who follows his instincts to pursue Bamber against the wishes of his superiors.
BBC One’s latest factual drama The Serpent also sets up a cat and mouse dynamic between the titular serial killer, Charles Sobhraj (Tahar Rahim in The Serpent cast), and Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle), a rebellious diplomat who follows his instincts against the wishes of his superiors.
The contrast between the two men is, on paper, enough to set up an extraordinary push-and-pull between the charismatic and glamorous Sobhraj, who targeted Western travellers in 1970s Asia, and the ‘square,’ righteous Dutch diplomat, who pursues the case of two missing hippies when all around him dismiss the couple as drugged-up ‘longhairs’.
The set-up is all there, but in episode one at least, it feels like the BBC isn’t quite sure what to do with their title character.
Tahar Rahim is a brilliant actor; in the Rooney Mara film Mary Magdalene he stole scenes and was lauded for his turn as Judas. But in his performance as the allegedly charming Sobhraj, we get no sense of the real-life man who conned and duped his way around Asia and into his followers’ hearts and minds.
In the series, the French actor’s face is hidden behind aviator sunglasses and apparently heavy makeup. His face is stiff and almost wooden; no doubt this was purposeful, alerting the audience to how truly studied and effortful that real-life charisma was. But the effect is that we’re never swept along with the charisma; nor do we fully understand how or why Sobhraj’s followers believed him so readily.
That balance between both engaging and respectful storytelling is difficult to strike, but certainly in this opening episode, The Serpent falls short of the feats pulled off by similar true crime dramas.
That said, the series still has all the hallmarks of a primetime BBC period drama, including glamorous costumes and a lush backdrop, after the cast and crew upped sticks to Bangkok to film on location.
The cast also features a number of tried-and-tested BBC faces, including Billy Howle (MotherFatherSon, BBC Two) as Herman Knippenberg, and Ellie Bamber (Les Misérables, and The Trial of Christine Keeler, both BBC One) as his real-life wife, the multilingual Angela.
Both grapple valiantly with their respective Dutch and German accents, which I sometimes found distracting; but I know some viewers (probably the ones who grumbled about Dracula’s British accent) will appreciate the effort.
Also tackling a thick accent is Doctor Who’s Jenna Coleman, who plays Marie-Andrée Leclerc, Sobhraj’s Quebecois partner and devoted follower. I will let viewers decide whether or not Coleman pulled off this very specific accent, and French-speaking dialogue, while playing opposite real-life Frenchman Rahim…
The true heart of episode one was neither the buttoned-up but naive Herman, or the stiff, chilling Sobhraj; rather, it’s the victims we meet. Deeply spiritual backpacker Teresa Knowlton (Alice Englert) is only introduced about two-thirds into the episode, but it’s her plight, and Englert’s performance, that stuck with me long after the episode ended.
- You can find out more about The Serpent true story here
The Serpent will begin on New Year’s Day, 1st January at 9pm on BBC One. Looking for something else to watch? Check out our guide to the best series on Netflix and best movies on Netflix, or visit our TV Guide.