2 out of 5
Directed by: Craig Viveiros
I know that my initial rejection of Rillington Place – a 3-part series concerning serial killer John Christie – was not unusual.
There is, firstly, the somewhat assumptive approach of the narrative: movies and shows covering notable killings / killers can usually get away without front-loading the story with its outcome – i.e. that so-and-so murders people – but there’s also, usually, some forthrightness in showing the same as it happens; that is, letting the viewer see (or have it implied) when events are happening. That way, even if you don’t happen to know much about Bundy or whomever, you can make the connection quickly enough: oh, okay, this person did some bad things.
I don’t know if John Christie or the location of 10 Rillington Place has enough notoriety on its own. I’ve done my share of serial killer wikipedia browsing, and it doesn’t instantly click with me, though perhaps it’s a case more known in the UK, as this three-part series ran on the BBC. Either way, director Craig Viveiros and writers Tracey Malone and Ed Whitmore not only bury the “what’s happening” of the topic until the third episode, but they also completely obscure events as they occur. The series’ tone is admittedly off – characters speak in constrained whispers; Christie shuffles about, hunched over; environments are steeped in shadow and murk – and we see Christie wander off down alleys and get questioned as to his whereabouts by his wife, as neighbors and associates go missing, but there’s no followup to this; no controversy. The show almost treats such events like they never happened, beyond the slightest of acknowledgements, and then we’re off to the next sequence. While this might be true to the time and place (the 40s; a rundown neighborhood), it’s strange in a dramatization, and seemingly makes the assumption that you’re watching because you know where it’s going. Even if you do, though, this approach is a bit of a stretch; and if you don’t, after two episodes of this, if you haven’t been encouraged to look up the name Christie or Rillington Place (and really, your only reason for doing so – since nothing too suspect on screen has occurred – would be to wonder why there’s a show dedicated to it), you’ll likely have grown restless before getting to the conclusion.
The second barrier is the dialogue. While Tim Roth’s representation of John Christie is very committed, as is Samantha Morton’s turn as his wife, Ethel, Christie – and we’ll suppose this is factual, again; there’s a late mention in the third episode suggesting why this might’ve been the case – speaks in a perpetual whisper and mumble. It’s painfully hard to hear and understand what Roth is saying, even with the volume up, and although Ethel is clearer, the emotional haranguement she receives from her husband – extreme, passive-aggressive gaslighting – often has her speaking in the same register. Almost the entirety of the first episode is taken up by these two, which led to my aforementioned rejection: I struggled with trying to understand what was being said, ear to the speakers on occasion, and then by the second episode, I’d pretty much gotten fed up. Jodie Comer and Nico Mirallegro show up as new tenants in the Christie’s apartment building, swept up in the missing persons associated with Christie, but even with these presence of these actors – two of my favorites – the impenetrability of the structure and lack of awareness regarding the sound mixing proved too much.
Having returned to the series once it was available to stream, and thus I was able to use captions, the structure still proves to be rather contentious, with a lot of the story details inadequately communicated. This makes the sequence of events and passage of time unnecessarily confusing, on occasion, and absolutely undermines the impact of the story, which wholly relies on the audience hanging around in order to justify burying the lede.
The production design is admirable – 10 Rillington Place drips with atmosphere – and although there’s the dialogue issue, Roth and Morton are a mezmerizingly creepy (and unfortunate, for Ethel Christie) couple; Comer’s role is a bit too small for her to make much impact, but Mirallegro also brings a lot to a complicated character, perking things up while he’s on screen.