'Rillington Place': TV Review

Underwritten characters doom it.

Tim Roth and Samantha Morton play killer and wife in a Sundance Now period drama based on real events.

It should be a truth universally acknowledged that staying with the wrong man can destroy a woman's life. Ethel Christie (Samantha Morton) rejects this truth — and pays dearly for that decision — in Sundance Now's serial-killer period drama Rillington Place. The middle-aged secretary reunites with her World War I vet husband, John "Reg" Christie (Tim Roth), despite his unexplained disappearance for nearly a decade. Subsequently, Ethel's life in their dingy and damp-looking London flat is a series of red flags: a volatile husband who vanishes in the night and reemerges in the morning, a marital history marked by unanswered questions, missing bedsheets and mysterious drops of blood on their mattress. The first of the miniseries' three hours is seen through Ethel's eyes as she watches her husband lie to strangers and chase after other women.

So why does she stay? Rillington has no idea.

Boasting the psychological depth of a Wikipedia entry, Rillington presents some of the most horrific human behavior possible while never asking what motivates such extreme actions. The series effectively evokes atmospheric dread by revisiting two decades of a historical murderer's life, but it largely fails as drama because writers Tracey Malone and Ed Whitmore offer so little emotional context for why their characters do the things they do. The first installment is particularly frustrating, as we're shown the kinds of gaslighting misogyny Ethel is subjected to but not how she processes such manipulations and why she puts up with them. As a result, the miniseries feels too often like a chain of reenactments rather than a narrative with a point of view.

At the end of Part One, newlyweds Tim (Nico Mirallegro) and Beryl (Jodie Comer) move into the unit above the Christies'. Told from Tim's perspective, Part Two is Rillington's strongest section by a mile, with the rowdy, ostentatiously disappointed younger couple serving as a poignant foil to the hushed, coldly mutually loathing duo downstairs. The plot moves too quickly, as it also does in the Reg-centric Part Three, but the subtle ways that Reg preys on his naive neighbors are genuinely upsetting. If Ethel's story is one of bad choices, Tim and Beryl's sadder tale is one of bad luck. At least Ethel has some idea of what her husband is capable of. Like Reg, Tim is a born liar, and the ways that the two men bullshit each other is the closest that this gloomy, dishwater-gray production gets to approaching humor. But, tragically, Tim and Beryl's brief life experience only prepares them for regret, not evil.

Pop culture tends to view serial killers as cautious and intelligent, and Rillington's bucking of that convention — if truer to history — feels unsatisfying, even narratively inexplicable. Roth is duly creepy — perhaps never more than when he genteelly frets "oh dear, oh dear" in a show of feigned fright — but his Reg registers more like a persnickety timeline of actions and events than a person with an existential core.

So electrifying as the lead on Hulu's Harlots, Morton just doesn't get enough to do here. Mirallegro and the thankfully ubiquitous Comer are utterly convincing in their minor roles and are much missed as soon as they're gone from the screen. Their absences leave behind a heavy hopelessness — and a house of horrors where the walls beg to be heard.

Network: Sundance Now (streaming site)

Cast: Tim Roth, Samantha Morton, Nico Mirallegro, Jodie Comer

Writers: Tracey Malone, Ed Whitmore

Premieres Thursday, Oct. 5, on Sundance Now