Rillington Place, a three-episode BBC mini-series starring Tim Roth as the serial killer John Reginald Christie and Samantha Morton as his wife Ethel, premiered to raves in England in November 2016, but has thus far flown under the radar of American audiences (it has been streaming on Sundance Now since October, 2017). It deserves to be more widely seen. As a blistering indictment of a mid-century English society that restricted women to second-class status, thus enabling a monster like Christie, it is as much a complement to the recent women’s marches and #MeToo movement as The Handmaid’s Tale.
John Christie’s murders of at least eight women (previously dramatized in the 1971 feature film 10 Rillington Place, starring Richard Attenborough as the serial killer) are well known in Britain. Christie was the ultimate con man, using his quiet, unassuming exterior and avuncular manner to convince his victims – mostly desperate young women – that he was a reliable abortionist at a time when abortion was illegal in England. The central crime dramatized in Rillington Place involves Christie’s offer of an abortion to his upstairs neighbors, Tim and Beryl Evans (played by Nico Mirallegro and Jodie Comer). The murder of Beryl and the couple’s infant daughter Geraldine, the way that Christie engineers Tim’s blame for them, and the subsequent trial, occupy the show’s main action. To say that Roth ‘disappears’ into the role understates the actor’s physical and psychological transformation into one of Britain’s most diabolical and frightening killers. Roth has said that he felt his performance and some of the content, including Christie’s necrophilia, was “too disturbing” for the BBC, who trimmed some of the more unpalatable material.
Director Craig Viveiros has worked in feature filmmaking and television, and in Rillington Place he exhibits intuitive understanding of both mediums, combining the intimacy of television drama with the high formal style of genre cinema. Yet every horror thriller cliché – ominous music, dank interiors, dim lighting, creaking doors, foggy nights – is rendered precisely and effectively in the service of this story. The acting, production design – the Christies’ flat is profoundly claustrophobic and unsettling – music, and staging would alone make Rillington Place a riveting true-crime narrative. But the writing by Tracey Malone and Ed Whitmore aims much higher: their intent is to condemn a society that presumed white men to be superior, and hold that society equally accountable as Christie for the suffering and death of his victims.
What raises Rillington Place to its level is how subtly rendered this tale is. The series contains no overt proselytizing; it simply dramatizes one scene after another in which no one thinks, or perhaps dares, to question Christie, simply because of his social standing. We get an inkling of this early on, when Ethel finds her husband digging a large hole in the back garden. The obvious questions go unasked. It’s not the place of a wife in this society to interrogate her husband. Later, a local policeman visits Christie to warn him of some neighborhood burglaries. When the cop notices a putrid smell in Christie’s living room, Christie explains it away as the “foreign” cooking of the “darkies” who have moved in upstairs. The cop understands, of course, and ignores the instinct that might lead him to discover the corpse decomposing under the floorboards.
Nico Mirallegro as Tim Evans (IMDB)
This collective willingness to turn the other way culminates in what feels like a medieval prosecution of Tim Evans (Nico Mirallegro) for the murder of his wife and daughter (as Evans, Mirallegro evokes pity, playing him as a basically decent bloke who never really had a chance in life, and certainly not up against a master manipulator like Christie). Although the defense suggests Christie might be responsible for the murders, sophisticated forensics don’t exist and so the “evidence” comes down to character testimony. The lies that Christie has regularly told throughout his life – that he was a man of medicine, a war hero, a decorated policeman, and that he has health issues that prevent him from being physically capable of the crimes – are believed by the court and the jury without question. Although both Christie and Evans are penniless losers, Christie, because of his pathology and superior intellect, is much better at playing a distinguished English gentleman. Evans on the other hand was a notorious gambler who spilled his money and family problems into the neighborhood during loud arguments with his wife. His lack of “class” dooms him while Christie’s fellow Londoners are all too eager to believe in his portrait of gentility.
For a long time, Ethel believes him too, even against her instincts and the evidence. In one of the few American reviews of the series, The Hollywood Reporter complained that Rillington Place neglects to delve into psychology, singling out Ethel’s behavior in staying with and covering up for her husband as particularly in need of explanation. It’s true that the series doesn’t offer up the kind of pat psychological explanations of so many true crime TV shows. But to say that it doesn’t plumb psychological depths is to misunderstand the nature of sophisticated writing and acting. Morton evokes Ethel’s thoughts and feelings through close-ups as subtle and expressive as those of Elisabeth Moss in The Handmaid’s Tale.
Audiences watching in 2017 understand enough about the varying circumstances experienced by battered women that keep them trapped by their abusers. Ethel knows that her husband is evil, but she also knows the reach of his evil extends far beyond their home; the only place she feels safe is locked in his kitchen, acting as an unspoken and unwitting accomplice. The modernizing society glimpsed around the edges of their lives, which might permit a woman to leave her marriage, never makes it to Rillington Place. During a visit to her brother (Christopher Hatherall) in Sheffield, Ethel tries to convince her husband to move to the sunny new development being built nearby, but Christie has no intention of leaving his lair. On the train ride home he lifts his head and suns himself like a reptile through the car window. Ethel watches until the train enters a tunnel and a blackness engulfs the light, a visual metaphor for her impending fate.
The Notting Hill neighborhood itself is a literal dead-end, entrenched in a Victorianism that is decaying around them like the bodies under the floorboards. The poverty on display evokes class inequality – one of the most persistent themes of British drama – and there’s a subtle critique of it here, not only in the limited choices faced by poor people like the Christies and the Evanses, but also of the way that class hierarchies allowed for desperate prostitutes and other single young women of no means to disappear without notice. The critiques of class and gender inequality intersect around the subject of abortion in Rillington Place. Poor women who needed them had no social, legal, or medical recourse to obtain them in England at the time, leaving them especially vulnerable to a manipulative monster like Christie.
Class inequality also yields insight into Christie’s possible motivations. Here was a man who felt small and inadequate, having not been able to obtain the kind of success that would legitimize him in the eyes of society. Shots of Christie disappearing into the night, slumped in alcoves, and wandering alone, suggest how invisible he felt, and how he embraced invisibility to hide his monstrosity. Of course, Christie’s (anti-)socialization is only one possible explanation for his behavior, and while Rillington Place engages in speculation about circumstances and motives, it ultimately accepts that the struggle to understand evil rarely yields enlightenment.