It seems only fitting that Sarah Phelps, who recently wrote BBC's acclaimed remake of And Then There Were None, should dive into The Witness for the Prosecution. Once you've waded into the mysterious waters of Agatha Christie's mind, you might as well take the full plunge.
Unlike And Then There Were None, filmed on a bright island and inside an extravagantly lit (albeit deadly) mansion, The Witness for the Prosecution plays out in a foggy, almost tobacco-stained looking atmosphere. It effectively sets the mood of hopelessness that permeates so many of its characters.
On its face, the premise of Christie's short story (turned play, turned movie, turned BBC two-part series) is simple: a young man, Leonard Vole, is accused of murdering the older woman, Emily French, that he's been seeing behind his wife's back. Put more bluntly, Leonard becomes an erstwhile gigolo to Emily. While Romaine Vole at first stands by her man, she soon becomes a witness not for her husband's defense, but for the prosecution.
Toby Jones plays Leonard's attorney, John Mayhew. Burdened by the death of his 16-year-old son and suffering from a nagging, bloody cough, Jones brings out in Mayhew that world-weary, put upon "every man" that only he can so sympathetically create. But Jones is not the only stellar member of the cast. Indeed, every character is played exquisitely by his or her actor. Monica Dolan gives a heart-wrenching performance as the lady's maid who loves Kim Cattrall's emotionally reckless Emily just a bit too much. Billy Howle palpably expresses Leonard's pain and confusion. Why was he good enough to risk his life in WWI, yet can't even find a job as a driver on his return home? Andrea Riseborough, as Austrian Romaine Vole, plays to the 20th century distrust of Germanic peoples in a way that is striking but not stereotypical.
Certainly, considering its title, the courtroom scenes are strong and vital to the plot. Equally captivating, however, are the scenes between John Mayhew and his emotionless wife. Likewise, the interactions between Mayhew and Leonard subtly, yet clearly, illustrate the lawyer's blurred perceptions between his dead son and his young client.
Like And Then There Were None, The Witness for the Prosecution ends with a plot twist none but those who've read or seen the story previously will expect. And, in Christie's only such instance, the true killer goes free at the end. Still, the final moments of the series are deliciously gripping.
Much has been made by other reviewers of the overt sexuality and saucy language employed in Phelp's rewrite. This reviewer believes it is much ado about nothing. There is no sensual contact for its own sake, no gratuitous profanity. Indeed, there are far more egregius examples of this excess on network television, and certainly on cable offerings and in movies.
Agatha Christie herself rewrote The Witness for the Prosecution. While adapting it for the stage, she changed the ending. We find it hard to believe that she would fault another writer for exploring ways to satisfy a new audience, nearly 100 years later.
Prose 'n Cons highly recommends The Witness for the Prosecution for adult lovers of realistic murder mysteries. It debuts January 30, 2017 on Acorn TV. PnC