10 Rillington Place

10 Rillington Place


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

John Reginald Halliday Christie - 'Reg' to those who knew him - has gone down in history as one of England's most prolific murderers. Though it is believed he may have also have killed elsewhere, the crimes which eventually led to his arrest took place in the apartment block at 10 Rillington Place in London's Notting Hill. 10 Rillington Place is also the name of the book in which campaigning journalist Ludovic Kennedy wrote about his crimes and challenged associated miscarriages of justice. Based on that book, Richard Fleischer's 1971 film attempts to reconstruct events and, in the process, delivers one of the most genuinely chilling entries in the serial killer canon.

Initially a difficult film to get into, 10 Rillington Place will soon have you hooked. Rather than being weakened by many viewers' familiarity with the story, it feeds off it, building on the sense of inevitability to create fear and suspense. Richard Attenborough famously said that he disliked playing Christie but never felt so fully immersed in any other character. That sense of a man uncomfortable in his own skin comes across strongly, adding to the creepiness of the character from the outset, like the quiet voice that Christie claimed was a consequence of mustard gas exposure. He's a small man, painstakingly polite, acquiring power over others so slowly and subtly that they never see the trap until it's too late. There's that kind of awkwardness about him that makes others feel guilty about their own instinct to avoid him. The coldness, the distance of psychopathy never make him less compelling to watch, and he doesn't need any mythical serial killer genius to outwit the vulnerable people who come his way.

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Among those people are the Evans family, moving into the top floor flat. John Hurt is Tim, an illiterate Welsh labourer who likes to tell wild tales and seems constantly adrift in the world. Judy Geeson is Beryl, the only source of warmth in the film, a bright light doomed to be snuffed out. They have an infant daughter whose mewling makes Christie scowl. When Beryl discovers she is pregnant again, panic ensues; they simply cannot afford to feed another child. So Christie offers to perform a termination, to make the problem go away.

Kennedy's book was fiercely confrontational and the film reflects this. This is a world where everybody is kicking downwards, with women damned if they do and damned if they don't; it's not just Christie who dishes out violence. It's a world where a man like Tim can find himself utterly isolated, unable to articulate himself due to his lack of education; where presentation and social standing are more important than the truth. We see the ineptness of police investigations, the ease with which things are covered up. To hammer home the point that this is more that mere polemic, much of the dialogue is taken from extant court records and witness accounts. The Christie case would eventually precipitate major legal changes, but many of the problems exposed in the film remain to this day. To place the film in context requires remembering that almost every discovery of a prolific killer is followed by the discovery of institutional failings that made things easy for them.

Balancing this socio-political angle and keeping us focused on the story is the inherent peculiarity of Christie as a character. Unmolested, he seems destined to go on, machine-like, without noticing the increasingly desperate nature of his own situation. As the bodies literally pile up around him it's not clear he ever had a grip to lose. In a world where killers are too often presented as slick and seductive, 10 Rillington Place provides a valuable glimpse into the squalor that far more often constitutes reality.

Reviewed on: 18 Jun 2013
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The story of London serial killer John Christie.

Director: Richard Fleischer

Starring: Richard Attenborough, Judy Geeson, John Hurt, Pat Heywood, André Morell, Sam Kydd

Year: 1971

Runtime: 111 minutes

Country: UK


EIFF 2013

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