Had a rough week? If you’re looking for an escape, I wouldn’t recommend the BBC’s Rillington Place, a grisly new 3-part period drama about the true story of serial killer John Christie. However, if the days are being kind to you, it’s worth a watch for skilful acting and a deep, disturbing look at a marriage that survived on deception and manipulation.
The first episode is shown from the perspective of Christie’s put-upon wife Ethel (Samantha Morton), as she reunites with her estranged husband after a break of almost a decade. John Christie (Tim Roth) is a man of many secrets however, and as the his true actions begin to reveal themselves, Ethel has to make the decision of whether to continued in determined ignorance or leave the man she still loves.
First off, it’s not a charming union. Rillington Place is fascinating in the way that it views the mysterious Christie through other peoples’ perspectives and in the first episode we see only what his wife sees of his activities. It makes sense – after all, how can we seek to understand a man who committed the crimes that he did? Instead, we can look at the impact he made on the innocent people around him and the choices that they feel they have to make in response.
In a commonly used term, Christie gaslights his wife, manipulating any situations where his own actions are being confronted by questioning Ethel’s understanding and sanity. He’s charmless except for those moments when faced with an attractive woman who’s not his wife, and treats Ethel poorly. However, like many abusive partners, Christie is skilled at convincing her that her life would be pointless in his absence.
How she deals with this may frustrate many viewers but it’s a true story and rightly realistic. Escaping an abuser is never cut and dry and many return. That doesn’t make them weak – these are incredibly complex situations. Rillington Place and Morton’s strength is in portraying this in a way that isn’t hiding any of the complexities, or conversely, exploiting them.
In regards to Christie’s crimes, this one is a little trickier. The episode became quite difficult to follow in terms of time scales, with frequent markers as to the years but they’re sufficiently vague enough that it’s hard to pinpoint a date unless you were really concentrating (a pen and paper too, perhaps). For those familiar with the true story, it’s almost frustrating – you know some of what is happening in the background but the murky time scale means that you can never be sure. Perhaps that’s for the best, since we largely are kept in Ethel’s perspective.
However, with the time-hopping structure, it feels like a lot was missed. Perhaps the next two episodes of Rillington Place have a plan for this – after all, those who know the real backstory and the next narrator will have a rough idea that we’ll be looking ahead, rather than behind. As to the third episode, your guess is as good as mine. I’ll be curious to see how they handle the missed gaps of the story so far.
Side Note: Despite the atmospheric setting, this series was filmed in Glasgow, not the real life background of London. I think it doubles pretty well but I may be biased – a few scenes were shot round the corner from my old flat!