The Witness For The Prosecution part one review

Sarah Phelps' latest Agatha Christie adaptation for the BBC is excellent in every respect...

This review contains spoilers.

Adaptations of Agatha Christie novels have often made great seasonal viewing for me, with large star-studded casts in exotic locations teamed with my inability to remember who did it (even after repeated viewings) making for a comfortably glitzy and entertaining way to spend a couple of hours.

This new BBC version of The Witness For The Prosecution is nothing like those adaptations. But then, it isn’t based on a Christie novel. The Witness For The Prosecution was a short story, first published in 1925 at the beginning of her career as a writer. Later Christie turned it into a stage play. And it has already been a film – a film that I love, directed by Billy Wilder and starring Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich and Elsa Lanchester (what a cast!) But I found myself watching this latest version and not thinking at all about the 1957 film. It is absolutely its own entity: a Christie adaptation for our times, and featuring time itself in a starring role.

For time is key. Could hapless WWI veteran Leonard Vole (Billy Howle) have killed Mrs Emily French (Kim Cattrall) after she changed his will to benefit him? At what time did he get home that night, and could his Viennese girlfriend Romaine Heilger (Andrea Riseborough) provide him with an alibi? The importance of time as a plot point was beautifully matched in the way it was represented by director Julian Jarrold. We saw Mrs French dancing, so pleased with her new lover; time slowed, and then the date upon the clock in the hall whizzed around so fast to send us three months into the future, where we next saw her lying dead upon the living room carpet, her head bashed in with a candlestick. The sound of clocks ticking was everywhere, and the camera took its own time over emotional moments, and on faces.

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So it was a good thing that all the actors were just so strong in it – this approach might not have worked otherwise. There wasn’t anybody who was less than absolutely great in their role, but one moment in particular stuck with me. Toby Jones as John Mayhew (the ill, suffering solicitor who takes on Leonard’s case) sat in the dark in the theatre watching Romaine perform an old romantic song. As she sang the pain and grief left his features, and transformed him utterly. Then it was over, and he collapsed into sobbing that he couldn’t control. What a brilliant actor he is.

I’m so glad we were given time for such revealing details, and to build character in a such a way. It was a reflective, solemn approach to material that could have been portrayed as titillating and it reflected not only upon time, and how it changes us, but also on class, and war, and money, and love, and cruelty.  Yes, pretty much all the big themes got touched upon, and there was no great rush to move the plot along at breakneck speed. Maybe that’s the joy of adapting a short story rather than a novel; not so many elements need to be sacrificed in order to chew through the pages. In any case, the writing (by Sarah Phelps, who previously adapted And Then There Were None for the BBC last Christmas) does a sterling job of balancing our interest in the crime with the establishment of the characters, until we get to the tipping point of the last ten minutes of this first part, and the murder mystery kicked up a gear to grab my attention fully.

Romaine’s decision to retract her alibi and instead become a witness for the prosecution happened in a heartbeat. At first she was tenderly sitting close to Leonard in his cell, and then –  she said one word to him. Hang. She spat in his face, and left us all hanging too. Why has she deserted him? Was she lying before, or is she lying now? Andrea Riseborough’s Romaine was always dead behind the eyes, punished too much by life perhaps, but by the end of the episode she was a sadist, enjoying the torment of Leonard and the poor romantic Mayhew. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out she was capable of murder herself. Could she have clubbed Mrs Emily French to death with the candlestick?

Maybe, but my money is on the maid, Janet (played by Monica Dolan) who had a prickly, domineering relationship with her mistress. She’s determined to throw all suspicion on to Leonard, not being able to bear the idea of her fine lady slumming it with such a lower-class oik. I’m guessing that could have made her angry enough to commit murder.

I don’t know, and for that I have to thank my useless memory when it comes to Agatha Christie adaptations. But, even if I did remember in the hours between now and the final episode, I think I’d keep watching this version of The Witness For The Prosecution. It’s so good in every respect that it really doesn’t need the plot alone to keep me engaged avidly. 

The Witness For The Prosecution Part Two airs tomorrow night, Tuesday the 27th of December, at 9pm on BBC One.

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