During the 1940s and 50s, one address in London was truly a house of horrors. The now infamous 10 Rillington Place was the home of John Reginald Christie, and was the last place many innocent women ever saw... An upstanding and respected member of the community, ‘Reg’ wasn’t even a suspect when the murders were uncovered – and the rather easily led upstairs-resident Timothy Evans was found guilty of the horrifying crimes in a court of law. After his execution, the grisly truth was discovered…”Christie done it” and the wrong man was killed. The case generated much controversy and is acknowledged as one of the most serious miscarriages of justice in history.
Many among you may be familiar with this dark story from the numerous true crime documentaries that have covered it, or more likely Richard Fleischer’s 1971 film that utterly transformed Richard Attenborough into the cruel Christie. But the short runtimes of these previous tellings-of-the-tale left questions unanswered. BBC’s Rillington Place, the mesmerising 3-part drama, aims to give a more complete adaptation of the ghastly story.
Rillington Place is spread across 3 parts, each focusing on a different character in the story and arguably taking place from their perspective. Part 1 shows us the beginning of John Reginald Christie’s dark side from the point of view of his wife, Ethel. Part 2 is from neighbour and wrongly-accused justice victim Timothy Evans’ perspective, while the finale is all about John himself – the man described as ‘a sexually dysfunctional hypochondriac and malevolent narcissist masquerading as a mild-mannered ledger clerk’. What a mouthful. These differing perspectives offer interesting angles on events, while the 3-hour length allows plenty of time for slow-burning development. Rillington Place is exceedingly uncomfortable, dark and quiet – but it’s utterly mesmerising.
Tim Roth becomes John Reginald Christie here, maybe even more so than Attenborough did. This is easily one of his finest performances, and certainly one of the best from 2016 in television. Roth will surely be showered with awards for Rillington Place, I’m calling it right now…Roth should be making space on his bookshelf as we speak. His darkly intense performance makes him an extremely intimidating and frightening presence, despite his somewhat small stature, old age and whisper-quiet delivery…He will make you fear all ageing Yorkshiremen. It is just an utterly perfect performance that is, of course, at the absolute centre of this adaptation. Samantha Morton puts in a good turn as Ethel, provoking a lot of thought about domestic abuse; both physical, and mental. Hollyoaks’ Nico Mirallegro is stunning as the troubled Timothy Evans, too – a role previously played by John Hurt back in ’71.
Visually, Rillington Place is hauntingly beautiful. Its bleak and colourless setting makes for an uncomfortably real sense of place, filling the viewer with dread each time we enter 10 Rillington Place. Post-war London is accurately displayed as a depressing wreck, making this depressing story all the more hard-hitting. It is the bleakness that gives Rillington Place such immersive power, pulling you into the walls of 10 Rillington Place and not letting you leave. It is extremely uncomfortable viewing, and yet the show is more about what you don’t see. The murders are largely implied rather than shown, and violence is seldom shown. This is a show that terrifies you with a mere hint of horror, in a way that would make Hitchcock proud. It does not glorify or glamorise the actions of John Reginald Christie, it chillingly forces you to feel the horrors of them while respectfully showing very little. It’s a marvellous approach.
So, is it worth a watch? Absolutely – although it is not for the faint of heart. Rillington Place is a horrifying and ghastly story and this adaptation amps the bleakness up to 11. It is uncomfortably quiet and slow, the dialogue is often whispered and mumbled, the visuals are colourless and depressing, there is almost no music – and yet, it is one of the finest things I saw on TV in 2016. If you have any interest in British history or, like Leonard Cohen sang on his final album, you want it darker – Rillington Place is about as dark as it gets. Bravo, BBC. This was a brave adaptation.
Rillington Place is an expertly crafted piece of television. 4/5
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