This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
This review contains spoilers.
With all that good work done in establishing deep and believable characters in part one – each one with his/her own past and problems – part two of the new BBC adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The Witness for the Prosecution cracked on with plot developments in a series of court scenes. Quiet, traumatised Leonard Vole (Billy Howle) was accused of the murder of his older lover, Mrs Emily French (Kim Cattrall). His lover Romaine Heilger (Andrea Riseborough) had decided to change from a witness for the defence to taking the stand for the prosecution, and telling the jury of twelve good men how Leonard had returned that night covered in blood, crowing over becoming rich as the sole beneficiary of Mrs French’s will. We saw Romaine rehearsing her speech in the mirror; how evil she looked. How determined to make Leonard suffer for some unknown, mysterious reason.
It took the work of solicitor John Mayhew (Toby Jones) to uncover her motivation. An anonymous note led him to a facially disfigured ex-colleague of Romaine’s with a tale to tell of sadism and revenge. Mayhew lapped it up, and produced evidence in court of Romaine’s plan to get Leonard sentenced to death so she could be with her new lover. The twelve good men loved the opportunity to punish Romaine for her infidelity – Vole walked free while she ended up in prison, serving a brief amount of time for perjury, and we were only half way through the running time for this final episode.
At that point things started to slow down and get emotional again. And it got really, heart-wrenchingly, emotional.
Mayhew crowed over his success, telling Romaine to her face what he thought of her, and in reply she gave a swanlike hiss, eyes rolling, that reminded me nothing less than Elsa Lanchester as The Bride of Frankenstein (Was this coincidence? Lanchester was in the 1957 Billy Wilder film version of this story, although not in the role of Leonard’s wife/lover). The hissing was inspired, though, even if it sounds a bit strange in description; Andrea Riseborough’s performance throughout this first section, on which so much relied, was brilliant. It left a memorably uncomfortable feeling behind, which followed Mayhew’s steps as he pressed for the maid Janet (Monica Dolan) to be tried for the murder of Mrs French instead, and got her sentenced to death. By that time her mind was gone, and so was any sense that justice was being served. A twist was coming, that much was obvious, but before that we were treated to a few scenes of rare happiness.
Mayhew, now a rich man through Leonard Vole’s generosity, recovered from his persistent cough and took his quiet wife to France for a holiday. The lighting changed entirely, throwing a peachy glow over everything. I loved the fact that, in this unreal glow, Leonard presented Mayhew with a watch to say thank you – for time was such an important part of this adaptation generally. How much time needs to pass for people to move on from terrible events, and how much time does any of us really have?
The brief respite over, the twist arrived, and it was a good one with plenty to chew over. Romaine had made herself up as the disfigured colleague and created the evidence to make her seem like an unfaithful, vicious woman. In court, the judge and jury bought into this narrative – for it was much more rewarding for them to believe her a bad woman than a good one, thereby ensuring they would side with Leonard, and release him. Suddenly those twelve good men looked a lot less good, and so did Mayhew. They had all bought into this idea of the “vicious, scheming bitch lying through her foreign teeth” (as it was phrased by Romaine herself) who needed to be put in her place because it made them feel righteous.
By this point I was feeling as if I’d been put through the wringer a bit, as was Mayhew – but one final twist remained. He turned to his wife Alice (Hayley Carmichael) for comfort, demanding to be told that he was loved, and she would not say it. In a harrowing moment he attacked her, held her down. and she admitted that she did not love him, and never could forgive him for the death of their son in World War I. Why had he returned, when their son did not? The background role of the wife – a role that we are so used to seeing as unimportant in such stories – suddenly became pivotal, and surprised me greatly. What a great piece of writing by Sarah Phelps, to make the last in a series of revelations hinge on the utterly personal, using our own expectations of this kind of material against us.
Was Mayhew a bad man? That was the question I ended up asking myself. He was a tortured man, blaming himself for his son’s death long before his wife confirmed her own feelings on the matter. And he was a selfish one, not always doing the right thing – not paying up money that he had promised to others, and enjoying his own success a great deal. Yet watching him walk into the sea, his eyes fixed on the moon, brought me no peace or resolution as an ending point. His love for Leonard, and his determination to save him from the gallows, had been real. Whether Romaine’s love for Leonard was as real was left in doubt, but then, how could you ever feel safe with someone who knew all your darkest secrets? I had no doubt they wouldn’t be spending the rest of their lives happily together. Their time as a couple would surely be limited.
Yes, it all boiled down to time. And what a great use of two hours this was, in terms of tying together both a great plot and wonderful amount of character development. If the ending didn’t leave me feeling joyous about human nature, well, that was absolutely intended. Murder is a horrible business, and The Witness for the Prosecution isn’t going to let us forget it. Not for a long time.