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The Serpent Review: A Serpentine Stunner On The Life & Crimes Of Sobhraj

The Serpent(Netflix, 8 Episodes)

Starring Tahar Rahim as Charles Sobhraj,Jenna Coleman as Marie-Andrée Leclerc,Billy Howle as Herman Knippenberg, Amesh Edireweera as Ajay Chowdhury

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·Directed by Tom Shankland,  Hand Herbots

· Rating: *** ½

It is  hard  to  sit through  8 serpentine episodes  of  The Serpent,  not because the content is dull  or  stretched-out, but for exactly  the  opposite reasons. As I sat  numbed,   feeling a sense  of growing horror and  repugnance at  the monstrous depravity  that human beings are  capable  of, I  kept asking myself,  why one  more  film on  Charles Sobhraj? There  have been so  many  including the film  directed  by  Prawaal Raman where  Randeep Hooda  played Sobhraj.

Tahir Rahim who plays Sobhraj  in this meticulously-mounted bio-pic about  a certifiable sociopath(a  bio-prick?)  is one of the most exciting  actors  in cinema today.  Rahim plays Sobhraj as a stoic implacable  emotionless monster, who  is attractive to men and women(and there is  a hint that he slept with both)  because …well, everyone likes  a bit of mystery in his   or her dull life.

In fact this sense of acquired adventure  runs  through the show. There is a Dutch diplomat , Herman Knippenberg the real hero of the show played with  immense sensitivity  by Billy Howle(remember  him in  Ritesh  Batra’s Sense  Of  An Ending?)  who  takes  on himself  the  job  of finding Sobhraj and his accomplices.And there is Nadine(Mathile Warnier) a neighbour of  Sobhraj and his two accomplices in Thailand who takes  unbelievable  risks(some of them quite improbable) to help Herman  nab Sobraj.

While these  heroes  go nabbing,  you  will never catch  the  narrative napping. Forever  alert  and  agile, the story moves through a beguiling labyrinth  of  countries  and  eras to  give us  a fulsome if  still  incomplete  picture of  a criminal mastermind who used and discarded  people at will.

The  narrative is taut and  tense, constantly clenched and on the edge giving us  a feeling of being inside  the  criminal’s  ugly head.I had a  bit of  problem with Tahar Rahim’s imperturbable  Sobhraj. In real life Sobhraj is supposed to be  a snakelike charmer.  On screen he is  a bit of  a bully and a con artiste.And it is hard to believe  so  many  women and men got taken  in  by him. Or that he was able to get away  with those ghastly crimes for  so long.

How  could  the world  not see through Sobhraj’s evil designs? This is the question that haunts the series. Luckily for us  the hero here is  not Sobhraj, it is Herman. His relentless quest to  bring  Sobhraj to justice which costs  his sleep, credibility and  finally marriage,   gives the  plot  a moral centre and  an ethical  heft which other films on criminal masterminds  often miss out on.

A large  part  of  the  plot towards  the end  is set in India . But I  hardly spotted  any Indian actors except  Darshan Jariwala  as a  hotel  receptionist, Aly Khan and  Pravesh Rana  as cops. Casting a  Sri Lankan actor  Amesh   Edireweera  as  one of Sobhraj’s accomplices Ajay Chowdhary  seems  a mistake. Edireweera doesn’t look Indian . He just looks evil.

Jenna Coleman as Sobhraj’s  girlfriend/woman-Friday  Monique  is a heady  mix of  the vile  and  the  vulnerable . Her outburst at the end when she tells Sobhraj she would smash any baby born  of him, will make your flesh crawl. There were many such interludes in the aptly titled The Serpent where  I  found myself flinching away  from the   violence. The  series takes us too close to  Sobhraj’s  crimes for  comfort. We  feel  so immersed  in his crimes  as  to be suffocated by the diabolism. In that sense this series is just what  bio-pics on  criminals  should be. De-motivational, deeply disturbing and  finally rewarding for telling why crime doesn’t pay.

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