Rillington Place (Blu-ray)
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Review of "Rillington Place (Blu-ray)"
What fresh hell is this?
This Blu-ray is around £15 on amazon at the moment.This is a recent BBC miniseries about John Reginald Halliday Christie, one of the more famous British serial killers. Active during and just after the war, Christie murdered at least seven people, hiding their remains in his house and garden. This sort of true crime drama is usually produced by ITV, and gives popular TV actors the chance to show off how versatile they are – off the top of my head, I can recall Dominic West as Fred West, Martin Clunes as ‘Acid Bath’ Haigh and James Bolam as Harold Shipman. There are doubtless many others. It’s a bit rarer for the BBC to get involved.
The BBC, presumably fearing accusations of bad taste from its enemies in the press and government, has really gone to town with its Christie project. It’s stretched out over almost three hours, and features proper film actors (albeit ones who aren’t quite as successful as they used to be). Everything about it screams self-conscious ‘prestige’. The Christie case is perhaps best known for including a famous miscarriage of justice (and in the days of capital punishment, miscarriages of justice couldn’t be remedied later). That presumably provides enough justification for the series to be made, rather than prurient interest in one of the first famous British sex murderers.The main problem for the TV series is that there’s a celebrated film version of the same story, 10 Rillington Place, which was made in 1971. The film – which was made on the road where the crimes actually happened, and filmed in one of the houses on the same street – pretty much covers all the same dramatic bases. It’s also a bit less timid about showing the murders, and contains two cracking performances by Richard Attenborough as Christie and John Hurt as Tim Evans, the unfortunate young man who falls foul of Christie’s machinations. It doesn’t feel like there’s a huge amount that can be added.
Each episode focuses on a separate character: Ethel, Christie’s wife; then Tim Evans; then Christie himself. It begins before the war, with Reg being released from prison and Ethel reconciling with him after a period apart. They move to Rillington Place, a shabby street in Notting Hill. Reg, although softly spoken and physically slight, is a domestic tyrant and a self-important fantasist. His consorting with prostitutes causes tension with Ethel, but there are much worse secrets lying in wait. In the second episode, Reg offers to help out when the pretty young upstairs neighbour, Beryl, wants to end an unwanted pregnancy, in spite of the objections of her husband, Timothy. And in the final episode, Christie’s world starts to unravel.It’s difficult to figure out how much of this we’re supposed to know about already. As someone who has read a lot of true crime, and seen the film version of this story a couple of times, I found the pace a bit slow, and was puzzled by the story’s refusal to be more explicit about what was going on. I guess this was made for people who don’t know what happened; this makes it hard to review, as spoilers are suddenly an issue, even though it’s a very well-known story. The back of the Blu-ray box plays it coy. Each episode begins with flash-forwards to important events, though, including obvious spoilers. I can’t figure out how we’re meant to respond to this. True crime that acts mysterious, but gives away important plot points at the start of each episode? Whuh?
It doesn’t go for suspense, perhaps out of deference for the subject matter (the crimes took place in living memory, and the victims’ families are presumably still alive. Timothy Evans’s sister and nephew met the actor who played him). So instead of lurid we get something very self-consciously serious. We get slow, ominous chords on the soundtrack; tight closeups, showing every minute twitch of an eyeball or quiver of a lip; a muted colour palette, because obviously life was just a bit more sepia in those days; and strategic use of slow motion – nothing says ‘take this seriously’ like a shot of a man walking down a street much too slowly. It’s full of meticulous period detail, of course. The set design is immaculate – they’ve obviously used the 1971 film as source material, and it looks just right.Tim Roth plays Christie. I’m not sure what he’s been up to recently, apart from playing Sepp Blatter in a FIFA promo movie. He gives a good performance. He almost whispers most of the time, and has a slightly odd tendency to cluster his words together in little clumps. He’s bent and rather feeble looking, with Chaplinesque baggy trousers. (Christie complained of numerous ailments, although I’m not sure how many were real.) And he’s almost entirely inscrutable, apart from a few moments of rage. Good though he is, though, I find Attenborough (who gave a far more ‘actorly’ performance) a bit more sinister. Maybe the point is that he shouldn’t seem sinister, which is why he got away with it for so long.
One point this definitely scores over the film is in its portrayal of Christie’s wife, who hardly registers at all in the earlier version. Samantha Morton is extremely good in the most complex role in the series (although she looks slightly too young). She’s clearly terrified of her husband, but so desperately wants to love him that it’s quite heartbreaking. Even after he’s made her complicit in his crimes, you still feel pity for her.The Evanses are also pretty good, but Nico Mirallegro has the disadvantage that anyone who’s seen the film will compare him to John Hurt in the same role, and find him wanting. This is clearly unfair – he gives a perfectly decent performance, and it’s not his fault that John Hurt was better – he was better than almost anyone else. (I feel as sad about John Hurt dying as I did about Bowie.)
The series is fairly blunt in showing the of-their-time attitudes of the characters. Ethel, one of the more sympathetic characters, uses casually racist language to describe the West Indian immigrants who start to move into the area after the war. And there’s a horribly funny moment when a patronising doctor tells Ethel that her failings as a wife are responsible for Reg’s poor health. It passes up the opportunity to fill the soundtrack with evocative 40s pop songs, perhaps for fear of trivialising things, but memorable use is made of the song Whispering Grass by The Ink Spots. I’m not sure who it was who realised that slapping a load of echo onto a slow old song would make it sound really sinister (Kubrick in The Shining maybe?), but the lesson has been learned well here.There is some violence – the most shocking moment might be the sudden (non-fatal) attack Reg makes on Ethel in the first episode. The actual murders we see didn’t have quite the same impact, for me anyway. While the film was very upfront about both the motive and the method, the TV show is a bit more restrained. The times we do see Reg kill are appropriately nasty, though – nothing is glamorised. My main qualm about the violence is that the two hanging scenes take far too long. The hangman, Pierrepoint, took professional pride in the speed with which he dispatched the condemned. These hangings take far too long.
Christie is a bit over-familiar as a subject – we feel we know him, like we know a character in a novel, with his victims becoming just his supporting cast. It might have been more interesting for the series to focus on the victims more, not just the famous victims. As it is, while this isn’t bad, it’s not nearly as good as the film version made 40 years ago.
Blu-rayThe picture and sound quality are excellent – as good as when broadcast. It would be a bit of a shock if a Blu-ray of a modern production didn’t look great.
The only extra is a five-minute making-of, which is in standard definition. It’s mostly filled with the actors talking about their roles, and my goodness they are pretentious. I suppose it’s that kind of worthy production that doesn’t allow for anyone involved to act like they enjoyed themselves, but it’s just full of luvvie-speak. Actors need to find a better way of conveying what they do, as they too often sound precious and wanky.It’s quite encouraging to see the BBC produce something like this, as their drama offerings in recent years have been pretty uninspiring. This wasn’t brilliant, but it felt like a step in the right direction. It was a bit too consumed by its own gravitas, but it’s still worth a look, especially if you’ve not seen the film.
Product Information : Rillington Place (Blu-ray)
Manufacturer's product description
Actor(s) (Last name, First name): Morton, Samantha
Actor(s): Tim Roth, Samantha Morton, Jodie Cromer, Nico Mirallegro
DVD Region: Blu-ray
Director(s): Craig Viveiros
Video Category: Television
Classification: 15 years and over
Production Year: 2016
Listed on Ciao since: 22/01/2017